After the reunification of the two German states, the Max Planck Society took over the responsibility to create centres of excellent basic research on the state territory of the former GDR.

History of the Institute

During the last decade, this resulted in the foundation of 19 new institutes. The Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology was one of the first institutes to be established after the decision was made by the senate of the Max Planck Society on March 13, 1992. Although at this time Germany’s research contributions in the field of virology and virally transmitted diseases was world renown, relatively little work was being produced in the area of infections caused by bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. Therefore, the research priorities of the newly founded Institute were to set a standard of excellence in infection biology research by bringing together scientists to cover interdisciplinary research subjects such as immunology, cellular biology, and microbiology and to establish dynamic collaborations between hospital clinics and the respective research departments of the universities. These circumstances were crucial for the selected location: the campus of the university hospital Charité, rich in tradition, and situated right in the centre of Berlin on the territory of former East Germany.

The history of the Charité is closely tied to the history of infectious disease. The Charité was originally founded as a quarantine and field hospital in 1710 – on account of the spread of the bubonic plague epidemic – and was, at that time, still located far outside the gates of Berlin. The city itself was not struck by the plague, but was repeatedly afflicted in the following years by various other epidemics, which resulted in the continual expansion of the hospital buildings. The soldier-emperor Frederick Wilhelm I coined the name “Charité” for this military hospital. Over time, as the city of Berlin grew, the Charité Hospital slowly found itself close to the centre of the growing metropolis.

The Charité affiliated with the Humboldt University in the 19th century after it became a hospital for civilians as well as an educational centre. During that time the era began which is now associated with such great names as Rudolph Virchow, Hermann von Helmholtz and Robert Koch, a generation of physicians, who, in contrast to their predecessors developed the concepts of infection and disease from a purely scientific perspective. With new approaches they combined medical and scientific issues and their novel methods led to pioneering accomplishments, such as the identification and characterization of several pathogens – amongst which was the causative agent of tuberculosis, a disease that was rapidly spreading across Europe in those days. In 1891, Robert Koch took over the Institute of Infectious Diseases that he himself had founded.

Almost a century later the new institute was about to arise in the vicinity of this historical location. Although, for several reasons, the search for an appropriate construction site proved to be rather difficult, eventually the construction of the common building for the Max Planck Institute and the Deutsches Rheuma Forschungszentrum (DRFZ) began in 1996.

In 1993 Prof. S.H.E. Kaufmann was appointed first director and head of the Department of Immunology at the new Institute followed by Prof. Th. F. Meyer as the Director of the Department of Molecular Biology in 1994. Together, the two directors began to build up the institute and research activities from temporary laboratory locations in Berlin. By the time that the newly-constructed laboratory building was ready in 2000, these first two research departments and the scientific core facilities were fully established. The third research department, the Department of Cellular Microbiology, headed by Prof. A. Zychlinsky, was the most recent addition in 2001.

Our perception of emerging and re-emerging diseases is constantly developing and changing. For instance, since Europe’s opening to the east, diseases such as tuberculosis, formerly assumed to be under control, are now re-emerging, and are in some cases even deadlier due to the occurrence of multiple antibiotic resistant mechanisms. The recent example of SARS, as a newly emerging infectious disease, shows us how quickly an unknown illness can arise and can pose a serious threat to us all on account of our highly mobile society. In addition, infectious diseases have been identified as precursors of cancer (Helicobacter pylori), or as potential cofactors of cardiovascular disease (Chlamydia)

In the light of this development, the research issues of the Institute are of special relevance to furthering our knowledge of infectious diseases. To this end, a broad spectrum of state-of-the-art cellular and molecular biological methods and technologies are available for researchers. The fundamental knowledge of both the body’s own defences and the pathogenesis of the microbes contributes to the development and improvement of vaccines and possible therapeutic interventions.

Architecture and Art

In 1994, architects were invited to compete to design and construct a new building to house both the Max Planck Institute and the DRFZ on the premises of the Charité Hospital Campus in Berlin.

The planners and architects were faced with a challenging situation – the limited space of the property, the condition of the foundation soil and the surrounding historical campus buildings. This act of balance between the building’s function as a state-of-the-art research institute, its aesthetic requirement to fit into the surrounding historical hospital campus, and the conditions of the building site was convincingly achieved by the architects Deubzer & König. With its modern facade of red cement bricks, the new building picks up elements of style and colour from the surrounding historical buildings and integrates harmoniously into the Charité Hospital campus setting.

After crossing a spacious fore-court, visitors are welcomed in the impressive and representative hall. In here, nothing of the busy work atmosphere can be felt, as the laboratories are in another section of the building complex that surrounds an inner courtyard. The laboratories comply with the high standards required for working with infectious pathogens and genetically modified organisms, and access to visitors is spatially and securely restricted. The concept of two building sections provides openness to a broad public and at the same time fulfils the safety requirements that have to be imposed on a research institute working with such hazardous pathogens like tuberculosis.

The entrance hall with its large open spaces, which were deliberately left vacant for versatile arrangements, can be used for staging a number of different types of events. Artists are among the regularly invited guests who enjoy using this spacious area for exhibitions and presentations. The changing presentations add to the aesthetical enrichment of the employees’ daily work routine.

The “Heilsteine” by Karin Sander, a permanent installation of art, symbolizes from the artist’s view the function of the research of the Institute to infectious diseases. (Bild 4) The artist scanned an emerald into a computer and used the compiled data to mill two identical “replicas” out of two aluminium blocks. Since the 12th century, and even today in alternative medicine, emeralds are believed to possess special healing powers, particularly in cases of rheumatism and infectious disease. Together with the enlargement of the sculpture and, hence, the enhancement of her visionary abilities, the artist underlines the goals of the Institute, the DRFZ, and the Charité Hospital in terms of discovering the causes and the possibilities of alleviation from infectious and rheumatic diseases.

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