History of the Max Planck Institutes for Developmental Biology and Biology, Tübingen

The Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Developmental Biology was founded in 1954 as an off-shoot of the Tübingen-based MPI for Biology. At this stage the institute carried the name and designation “for Virus Research”. Initially set up in buildings at Melanchthonstraße, in 1960 it moved to new buildings at Spemannstraße 35 (Fig. 1).


The founding directors were Hans Friedrich -Freksa (department 1, physical biology), Gerhard Schramm (department 2, biochemistry) and Werner Schäfer (department 3, animal virology). In 1960, Alfred Gierer joined the institute as director of department 4, molecular biology (Fig. 2).


Each of the four departments had a separate building, joined by a tract housing the administration, a seminar room, library and electron microscopy facility. The institute also had a separate building for the mechanical workshop and a large animal house, as well as a greenhouse (Fig. 3). The department of Wolfgang Beermann of the MPI for Biology was situated across the road at Spemannstr 34. The guest house (Max Planck House), with its lecture hall, cafeteria and library, was added in 1962 at Spemannstraße 36 as a general facility for the Tübingen Max Planck Institutes; further down the road the MPI for Biological Cybernetics was founded in 1968. During this period, the Max Planck Institute for Virus Research saw pioneering work on the molecular biology of the genetic code, as well as the structure and function of animal retroviruses and the plant RNA virus TMV.

In 1969 the Friedrich Miescher Laboratory (FML) was established in a new building to host four independent junior research groups, a purpose it still serves today (Fig. 3).


One of the group leaders, Friedrich Bonhoeffer, became the first among the second generation of directors at the MPI for Developmental Biology. Bonhoeffer was appointed director of department 1 in 1972, followed by Uli Schwarz (department 2) and Peter Hausen (adding a new department 5, cell biology). Departments 2 and 5 shared the biochemistry building. The focus of the institute gradually changed, and it was renamed MPI for Developmental Biology in 1984. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, who had joined the FML in 1981, was appointed director of department 3 (genetics) in 1985. In 1995 she received the Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology for her pioneering work on pattern formation in Drosophila, jointly with Eric Wieschaus, with whom she had collaborated at the European Molecular Biology Laborators in Heidelberg. By the 1990s, the research areas of the institute had come to include developmental biology of Hydra and frogs, neuroembryology in chickens, and developmental genetics of Drosophila and zebrafish. The fish house was built in 1992, replacing a chicken yard (Fig. 4).


Upon the retirement of Alfred Gierer and Friedrich Bonhoeffer, a third generation of directors began to change the focus of the institute again. In 1999, Ralf Sommer introduced evolutionary biology as director of department 4.  In 2001, Andrei Lupas added structural biology and evolution of proteins (department 1, protein evolution,), and Detlef Weigel (department 6, molecular biology) brought back plant biology, with an emphasis on plant evolution in 2002. The resources for this sixth department became available with the closing of the MPI for Biology, first announced in 1998. The appointment of a new generation of directors was completed with Elisa Izaurralde (department 2) in 2005, and Gerd Jürgens (department 5, cell biology) in 2008, who continued his appointment as professor in plant genetics at the University of Tübingen.

In addition to research groups in the departments, the institute hosts five non-tenured Max Planck Research Groups plus several additional independent research groups supported through third party or institute funds. Departments 1, 2, 3 and 5, the research groups, the microscopy and genomics facilities, teaching labs, seminar rooms and administration are located in the new modern building finished in 2005 (Fig. 5), replacing the old buildings from which only the house of the former department 4, which is now a greenhouse, and the workshop remained. Departments 4 and 6 share the FML building with the four FML groups (Fig. 6).

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