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Prof. Karen Alim receives international research award

Renowned grant from the Human Frontier Science Program for biophysicist

2021-04-29 – News from the Physics Department

Karen Alim, Professor on Theory of Biological Networks at the Technical University of Munich, together with a team of international scientists receives a prestigious research grant from the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP), a global program to promote excellent research in the life sciences. The grant is endowed with 1 Mio Dollar for three years.

The slime mold Physarum polycephalum consists of only one giant cell and can harbor millions of cell nuclei. When two organisms fuse into one, as can be seen here, complex interactions take place at the nuclear level. The two cells are each about two centimeters in diameter. – Bild: Wenzel Schürmann / Technische Universität München

Using the unicellular slime mold Physarum polycephalum, the biophysicist examines the question of how simple organisms can be successful in complex environments. The creature which consists of only one giant cell can harbor millions of cell nuclei. When two organisms fuse into one, complex interactions take place at the nuclear level, which can even lead to the selective killing of certain cell nuclei. The shared cytoplasm, the basic substance of the cell, traffics resources and information allowing the entire organism to gain resistance to antibiotics even when only a fraction of its nuclei carries resistance genes resistance to antibiotics.

At the interface between physics, evolutionary biology and applied mathematics, Karen Alim and her team aim to uncover how these cooperative and competitive dynamics between cell nuclei interact to produce emergent organism-scale behaviors. The team awarded by the HFSP includes the mathematician Marcus Roper, University of California, Los Angeles, and the biologist Daniel Rozen, University of Leiden, Netherlands.

“Many cell nuclei in a shared cytoplasm are much more common than is generally assumed, for example in tumor development or in the placenta,” says Karen Alim. “We hope that from Physarum polycephalum we will learn how the nuclei compete with one another or work together to be successful as a single cell.”

The international Human Frontier Science program supports highly innovative basic research on the complex mechanisms of living organisms, with an emphasis placed on novel and interdisciplinary approaches that involve scientific exchange across national and disciplinary boundaries. The program enjoys an excellent reputation among scientists and competition is fierce: This year, 21 research projects from 71 applications were selected for funding. Initially, 551 research teams had submitted letters of intent.

The program is open to teams of scientists from different continents which aim to combine their expertise on questions that cannot be answered by individual laboratories. Participation of researchers from fields outside the traditional life sciences is explicitly welcome. The program receives financial support from the governments or research agencies of Australia, Canada, France, Germany, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, the Republic of Korea, New Zealand, Singapore, Switzerland, Great Britain, the USA and the European Union.


Prof. Karen Alim
Technical University of Munich
James-Franck-Str. 1
85748 Garching
Tel.: +49 89 289-12192
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