New director at the institute

Prof. Dr. Winfried Denk will continue his research in Martinsried

September 21, 2011
Last week, Winfried Denk signed the contract as Director at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology. He is famous for his pioneering work in the development of new optical methods, particularly in the area of neurobiology. Numerous scientists at the MPI of Neurobiology already now make use of a many of his inventions. This cooperation will now be intensified, when the 53 year old scientist moves back to where he grew up and studied, in the city of Munich. For the past 12 years, Winfried Denk has worked as Director at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg. In Martinsried, he will establish and lead the Department Structural Neurobiology.

Winfried Denk, a native of Munich, studied physics first at Ludwig Maximilian University and at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich. For his doctoral thesis, he went to Cornell University in Ithaca, USA. Winfried Denk continued his research at the IBM Research Lab in Rüschlikon, Switzerland, before heading an independent research group at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, USA, from 1991. In 1999, the physicist was appointed director at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg, where he headed the Department of Biomedical Optics. Since 2002, Winfried Denk has also been an honorary professor at the University of Heidelberg. Now he is returning to his old home and will officially become director at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology starting October 1st. However, the department's move will not take place until the end of 2013 due to necessary renovation work.

Winfried Denk specializes in the development of new microscopy methods for biomedical research. Biological processes are usually based on processes and changes at the molecular and cellular level. These processes are usually linked to the surrounding tissue in a variety of ways. Therefore, in order to understand such biological processes, they cannot be viewed independently of their surroundings, but must be studied where they occur. Only optical microscopy can do this: it is able to image such processes in high resolution, even in living tissue. It is true that light microscopes have been known since the early 17th century and are an integral part of scientific research. Today, however, the technology is anything but dusty. In particular, the development of fluorescent dyes has made microscopy one of the most important technologies in biological research today. With the help of these dyes, individual cells, their components or certain cell processes become visible to the observer through the microscope. In brain tissue, which is highly scattering and thus causes problems for the normal light microscope, the multiquantum microscope co-invented by Denk is particularly well suited for this purpose.

"The goal of our work is to further improve the possibilities of modern microscopy," explains Winfried Denk. Among other things, his development of the three-dimensional scanning electron microscope shows that the physicist knows his craft. In this automated process, an electron microscope scans the surface of a piece of tissue; the image obtained is stored. Next, the device cuts an ultrathin slice of tissue and then captures the underlying tissue plane. Slice by slice, all structures in the available tissue block are thus recorded. Finally, a program reassembles all the images on the computer into the original three-dimensional structure, with the goal of decoding the brain's circuitry. "This revolutionary method provides completely new insights into interconnections - also in the nervous system - and is therefore already being used by several departments and groups at our institute in close collaboration with Winfried Denk," says Tobias Bonhoeffer, the Managing Director of the MPI of Neurobiology. "We are very pleased that we will now have Winfried as a colleague on site in the future and thus be able to intensify our exchange even further." Winfried Denk is also looking forward to returning to his Munich home: "It's not a bad place to live in Munich, but above all I'm looking forward to my new colleagues at the institute and to the excellent research environment in Martinsried."

Winfried Denk has already received several awards for his research, such as the Young Investigator Award of the Biophysical Society, the Rank Prize for Opto-Electronics and the Leibniz Prize of the German Research Foundation.

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