BACK TO THE FEATURE INDEX

Ursula Windmüller is head of a local office of the Bio-Gen-Tec-NRW, the North-Rhine Westphalian State Initiative for the promotion of Biotechnology. She has been acting as the scientific coordinator of the first NanoBioTec--Congress and Exhibition, held last year in Münster, and she is also advising the coordination of this year's follow-up NanoBioTec II. Today, Ursula Windmüller gives us an overview about current developments and the future potential of nanobiotechnology in Germany.

You cannot study nanobiotechnology in Germany, and you probably should not study it anywhere. Science has always been at its best where disciplines meet and chafe, where scientists coming from different worlds of thinking meet and compete in a collaborative endeavor. This has proven true in the past, when at the border of biology and chemistry, biochemistry developed into molecular biology and, eventually, molecular genetics. This has neither been a merger nor a take over--biology and chemistry are still distinct disciplines with distinct traditions, distinct cultures of discussion and thinking, and distinct departments. And yet, a whole new scientific world has emerged, and it is about to shape almost every aspect of our modern world and life. We are now witnessing the beginnings of a similar process at the border of biology and physics. These are exciting times, and biologists and physicists will take their chance to be part of this process, to make their mark on the emerging field of nanobiotechnology.

There are a number of universities in Germany with long-standing traditions of excellence in biology, and there are a few with a strong focus on molecular biology and biotechnology. Similarly, physics has an outstanding tradition in a number of German universities, and some have a strong commitment to quantum physics and nanotechnology. Interdisciplinary collaboration is the key to excellence in nanobiotechnology--and ideally this includes not just biologists and biotechnologists, physicists and nanotechnologists, but also chemists and pharmaceutical, medical, and clinical scientists. There are a few places where fruitful collaborations between these disciplines are beginning, and their number is growing.

There are the big ones, Munich and Heidelberg, Tübingen and Göttingen, Berlin and Halle, to name a few of the most influential. Some of these universities not only have strong programs in biology and physics, chemistry and medicine, but they are also home to enthusiastic and visionary scientists searching and crossing the borders of their disciplines to venture into unknown territories with challenges that can only be met collaboratively. Munich, Heidelberg, and Cologne have enormously profited from winning the 1995 BioRegio competition from the German Ministry of Research and Technology (BMBF) that launched biotechnology into the German business arena, which had been hesitant and reluctant to grasp the opportunity until then. These regions, supported by local Government initiatives such as BioM AG in Munich and Bio-Gen-Tec-NRW in Cologne, have since developed a strong profile and international reputation in biotechnology.

In 1998, the BMBF announced a competition for Centers of Competence in Nanotechnology, and Aachen, Berlin, Braunschweig, Dresden, Kaiserslautern/Saarbrücken, and Münster/Hamburg/Munich came out as the winning teams. Each of these Centers is the core of a network encompassing several dozen universities, research institutes, and companies, and focusing on a specific aspect of Nanotechnology. Together, these Centers of Competence form a complementary and synergistic super-network developing and offering almost every aspect of nanotechnology tools and services.

These first-class addresses for biotechnology and nanotechnology are easily spotted, but the emerging field of nanobiotechnology is still in its infancy, and the most promising developments are more difficult to locate. The transdisciplinary approach required still strongly depends on individuals with a determined mindset for spreading the word and at rousing the enthusiasm of colleagues from other disciplines. The BMBF has just announced a new program entirely devoted to nanobiotechnology. Last year's BioProfile competition, a follow up to the enormously successful BioRegio programme, is about to enter the decision round, and Münster as well as Saarbrücken are participating with strong nanobiotechnology-based proposals. Besides Munich and Heidelberg, emerging places of inquiry for nanobiotechnology appear to be Karlsruhe, Kaiserslautern, Hamburg, and, most notably, Jena and Münster.

NanoBioTec, the first International Congress and Exhibition on Nanobiotechnology in Germany, was held last year in Münster to bring together scientists and engineers, academia and industry, politics and decision-makers involved in and enthralled by nanobiotechnology. This has been a very exciting meeting, one characterized by an open atmosphere where people strived for a true interdisciplinary dialogue. It became clear that there is a move in academia towards collaborative projects aimed at resolving open questions in biology by using nanotechnology tools and at using biological solutions to solve nanotechnological problems. It became very clear that nanobiotechnology promises to develop into an enormously relevant field with an economic potential which might eventually rival that of biotechnology.

VDI, Germany's Association of Engineers, views nanotechnologies as a key to future global markets. The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, the most important national research funder in Germany, and the Degussa-Hüls AG, a global chemistry corporation based at Marl, have recently jointly set up the Nanomaterials Priority Program involving seven German universities ( see Next Wave report). Henkel, another global player in the chemistry market, based in Düsseldorf, was the main sponsor for last year's NanoBioTec in Münster, and it has just set up a 150-million-euro venture capital trust to boost founding of knowledge-based start-up companies in the field of nano- and biotechnologies.

Nanobiotechnology is a science now--and one with a future--but not yet an industry. But the economic prospects are bright, too. This is the time to become involved.