About us

The Max Planck Institute for Biological Intelligence

The Max Planck Institute for Biological Intelligence (MPI-BI) is devoted to basic research on topics in behavioral ecology, evolutionary research and neuroscience. Around 500 employees from more than 50 nations study how animal organisms acquire, store, apply and pass on knowledge about their environment in order to find ever-new solutions to problems and adapt to a constantly changing environment.

The MPI-BI was established in January 2022 as the result of the merger of the two Max Planck Institutes of Neurobiology and for Ornithology. Following a “founding year”, the legal founding of the institute took place on January 1, 2023.

The institute has two locations: At the nature-oriented Seewiesen Campus, in the municipality of Pöcking near Starnberg, field research is combined with modern methods of behavioral biology. At the Martinsried Campus in the southwest of Munich, neuroscientific research is currently the main focus. Here, laboratory experiments are usually combined with state-of-the-art methods such as optogenetics, connectomics or machine learning.

In the coming years, the Martinsried location will be expanded, together with the MPI of Biochemistry, into a future-oriented and climate-neutral Life Science Campus.

Our research

Intelligence is the ability to achieve complex goals. Until now, this property was largely reserved for living organisms. However, machines can now also perform tasks independently, so they could soon pursue their own goals with the help of artificial intelligence.

Although we can thus equip machines with artificial intelligence, many processes in "biological" brains are still a mystery to us. How do animals calculate, plan and decide, individually or in groups? To address this question, a deeper look into evolutionary history is needed. Selection favors individuals that successfully compete for the resources needed to survive and reproduce: Territories, food, mates, status, and ideas. The brains and associated behaviors we observe today are the result of successful adaptation to these challenges. Human behavior is no exception. Traces of decisions have accumulated, for example, in our personalities, thinking styles, value systems or relationship preferences.

The research at our institute is dedicated to decipher the mechanisms of biological intelligence at its various levels. The investigations range from molecular interactions to entire groups of individuals. Since biological systems adapt to their natural environment, special attention is paid to animal behavior in the wild. The study of the brain in its natural environment provides insight into how organisms communicate with each other and change their environment, or how social interactions lead to the formation of differentiated societies.

Among other topics, scientists at the MPI-BI are investigating the following questions:

  • How do neuronal networks influence animal behavior?
  • What is the molecular basis of neuronal circuits? 
  • How are sensory impressions processed in the brain and what happens when it learns or forgets? 
  • How did neuronal circuits develop during evolution? 
  • How do evolutionary processes occur at the molecular level?
  • How do species adapt to their respective environments? 
  • How can microscopy methods be improved to make the previously invisible visible?
  • How is it possible to study behavior and brain activity of free-living animals? 

To get to the bottom of these questions, studies are conducted with the aid of animal models, computer simulations and cell cultures in both laboratory and field settings. The range of methods used is wide. They include anatomy, bioacoustics, endocrinology, imaging, biochemistry, electrophysiology, genetics, histology, connectomics, machine learning, molecular biology, optogenetics, physiology and behavioral biology.

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