New Center for Synthetic Genomics

Carl-Zeiss-Stiftung finances establishment of joint facility in Heidelberg, Karlsruhe, and Mainz

5 March 2024

Applying and developing new technologies for DNA synthesis to pave the way for producing entire artificial genomes – that is the goal of a new interdisciplinary center starting up at Heidelberg University, the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), and Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). The Carl-Zeiss-Stiftung (CZS) is financing the establishment of the Center for Synthetic Genomics over a period of six years with a total amount of EUR 12 million. The aim is to spark new developments in synthetic genomics through basic research and technology development using methods from artificial intelligence. Eventually, it should be possible to design and synthesize long DNA sequences for applications in research, nanomaterials science, and medicine. The first spokesperson of the new center is systems biologist Professor Michael Knop, deputy director of the Center for Molecular Biology of Heidelberg University (ZMBH).

While the past two decades of genome research were marked by the development of new genome sequencing techniques, it will become possible to modify genomes more quickly and easily, or even to create entirely new genomes, using innovative methods of DNA synthesis and genome assembly. This is the vision that the Carl-Zeiss-Stiftung Center for Synthetic Genomics Heidelberg – Karlsruhe – Mainz (CZS Center SynGen) will pursue in the coming years. The researchers from the three universities want to design synthetic DNA sequences with the aid of AI-based methods of analysis and modelling, to make targeted changes in the genome of organisms and give it new functionalities. The aim is to extract from them what are called biologics, i.e., products manufactured by biotechnology methods. These are eventually to be used to produce bio-based medicines, gene therapies for diseases and biofuels, or to drive research into novel materials.

"At the CZS Centers we combine expertise across locations and disciplines. The life sciences, in particular, require a high degree of interdisciplinary collaboration. The CZS Center SynGen aims to advance the production of synthetic DNA and unfold its immense potential for research, medicine, and beyond," said Dr. Felix Streiter, managing director of the Carl-Zeiss-Stiftung, explaining the foundation's motivation for funding the second CZS Center in Germany.

"Synthetic genomics is a young but rapidly growing research area globally, with transfer potential for different socially relevant challenges. In our new center, we will pool the complementary expertise of the three strong research universities at Heidelberg, Karlsruhe, and Mainz in the life sciences, molecular systems engineering, and biomedical research. That way, we intend to coordinate all the steps in synthetic genomics, from design and production right up to the application of synthetic genetic materials and organisms," said Center spokesperson Professor Michael Knop. The other members of the three-person management committee of the CZS Center SynGen are molecular biologist Professor Sylvia Erhardt from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and biophysical chemist Professor Edward Lemke from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz.

The Carl-Zeiss-Stiftung Center for Synthetic Genomics Heidelberg – Karlsruhe – Mainz started work in January 2024. Researchers collaborating at the three locations represent different disciplines, including biology, biochemistry, biophysics, biotechnology, synthetic biology, and bioengineering as well as philosophy and law, genomics, immunology, epigenetics, virology, and data science. In addition, international experts and early-career researchers are to be recruited to work at the new center. A competence center for the synthesis of synthetic DNA is likewise to be set up in Heidelberg, the CZS Center Synthetic DNA Accelerator Lab. Also involved in the CZS Center SynGen are scientists from the German Cancer Research Center and the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies as well as external partners from academia and business.

The CZS Center SynGen was now officially opened at a ceremony held at Heidelberg University. It was attended by the lead scientists as well as representatives of the Carl-Zeiss-Stiftung and the participating universities.

Edward Lemke represents the Mainz-based research in the new CZS Center SynGen

Edward Lemke is Professor of Synthetic Biophysics at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz and Adjunct Director at the Institute of Molecular Biology (IMB). He is spokesperson of the Collaborative Research Center on "Polymer Concepts in Cellular Function" (CRC 1551), which is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and was launched in January 2023 under the lead management of JGU. Lemke also coordinates the DFG-funded Priority Program "Molecular Mechanisms of Functional Phase Separation" and is lead scientist in the CoM2Life (Convergence Center for Life-Like Soft Materials and Biological Systems) research network, with which JGU is applying for funding as a Cluster of Excellence in the German national Excellence Strategy competition. In 2020, Lemke received an ERC Advanced Grant worth EUR 2.5 million for his research.

About the Carl-Zeiss-Stiftung

The Carl-Zeiss-Stiftung's mission is to create an open environment for scientific breakthroughs. As a partner of excellence in science, it supports basic research as well as applied sciences in the STEM subject areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Founded in 1889 by physicist and mathematician Ernst Abbe, the Carl-Zeiss-Stiftung is one of the oldest and biggest private science funding institutions in Germany. It is the sole owner of Carl Zeiss AG and SCHOTT AG. Its projects are financed from the dividend distributions of the two foundation companies.