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Using terahertz to explore the inside of the cell: Joint research group between the Cluster of Excellence Physics of Life (PoL) and the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) to decipher biomolecules


Joint press release by HZDR and TU Dresden (Dresden, 01/12/2021)

Since December 2021, Dr. Ellen Adams leads the DRESDEN-concept Research Group for Physical Chemistry of Biomolecular Condensates. Her position with tenure track to a professorship is jointly funded by the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) and the Cluster of Excellence Physics of Life (PoL) at TU Dresden. Dr. Ellen Adams aims to use the latest terahertz technologies to decipher biophysical processes of interfaces – so-called membrane-less condensates – in the cell interior, which for example play a role in neurodegenerative diseases.

In order to describe the physical processes that underlie the organization of life in molecules, cells and tissues, excellent infrastructure and interdisciplinary research as well as, above all, international top-class researchers are required. Dresden with the TU Dresden, the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) and other partners in the DRESDEN-concept network has exactly this to offer.

From now on, Dr. Ellen Adams will be a part of this scientific community. Starting December 2021, she will be looking deep into cells with her new joint research group on biomolecular condensates at the Cluster of Excellence Physics of Life (PoL) at TU Dresden and Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) to unravel the details of how the inside of cells is structured from the level of atoms and molecules. Dr. Adams received her PhD in physical chemistry from Ohio State University, USA, in 2016. She then conducted postdoctoral research at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden, and at Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany, where she first investigated the hydration properties of biomolecular condensates using terahertz spectroscopy. “The results of my research have implications not only for biology, but for many other fields in which water is essential, including many areas of physical chemistry, biochemistry, and atmospheric chemistry. Interdisciplinary collaboration between many research areas is essential to achieve my research goals. The Cluster of Excellence PoL and the HZDR offer me a great opportunity to continue my research while living in one of my favorite cities. I’m looking forward to calling Dresden my new home,” the scientist highlights.

Dr. Ellen Adams will address fundamental physical phenomena of biological interfaces. Since the invention of the microscope, it is known that certain areas in cells are divided into organelles – areas with different specialized functions in cells. These organelles, such as the cell nucleus, are separated by a biological membrane – a kind of biological interface between the two areas of the cell. All the more astonishing was a discovery made in Dresden: segregated organelles that are membrane-less . These organelles are formed by a so-called liquid-liquid phase separation in the cell interior, which separate droplets from the surrounding liquid without being bound by a membrane, similar to oil droplets in water. Defects in the formation and dissolution of such segregates are associated with various diseases and thus their regulation is an important research topic. This is exactly what Dr. Ellen Adams’ group will focus on. The goal is to understand and target the physical properties of the interfaces and the role of water as a structural component of these biologically reactive droplets.

At the HZDR, Dr. Adams finds the cutting-edge experimental conditions necessary for her projects. This is where it is already possible today to use so-called terahertz radiation for research into biomolecules. These are especially long-wave infrared rays that are specifically absorbed by water molecules. Dr. Ellen Adams has worked intensively on the use of this radiation for the study of the water envelope around biological molecules and will share this expertise to the Dresden Cluster of Excellence PoL. TELBE is the name of the existing terahertz source at the HZDR’s ELBE (electron linear accelerator for beams of high brilliance and low emittance) beam source. In addition, a fundamental renewal of the accelerator facilities at HZDR is planned: the future project DALI (Dresden Advanced Light Infrastructure). Biophysicist Prof. Karim Fahmy, who has been working as a researcher at the HZDR since 2002, is already looking forward to the close collaboration with Dr. Adams and emphasizes the efficiency of the infrastructure at the HZDR: “The further development of TELBE with regard to highest beam qualities should, among other things, create new experimental possibilities for users from biophysics. Here, the requirements of the groups from DRESDEN-concept are directly relevant for technical developments to keep biological samples functional under experimental conditions. This will once again underpin Dresden’s competitiveness as a leading location for science and research.”

All in all, Dresden provides ideal conditions for a successful start of Dr. Adams and research results from deep inside the cell.

Editorial: Kim-Astrid Magister

Portrait: Dr. Ellen Adams © Fabio Novelli © Fabio Novelli

About PoL – Cluster of Excellence Physics of Life

The Cluster of Excellence Physics of Life (PoL) at TU Dresden focuses on the laws of physics that underlie the organization of life into molecules, cells and tissues. At the cluster, physicists, biologists and computer scientists join forces to investigate how active matter organizes itself into predetermined structures in cells and tissues, thus giving rise to life. PoL is funded by the DFG as part of the Excellence Strategy. It is a collaboration between scientists from TU Dresden and research institutions of the DRESDEN-concept network, such as the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics (MPI-CBG), the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems (MPI-PKS), the Leibniz Institute of Polymer Research (IPF) and the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR). www.physics-of-life.tu-dresden.de


About HZDR – Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf

The Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) performs – as an independent German research center – research in the fields of energy, health, and matter. We focus on answering the following questions:

  • How can energy and resources be utilized in an efficient, safe, and sustainable way?
  • How can malignant tumors be more precisely visualized, characterized, and more effectively treated?
  • How do matter and materials behave under the influence of strong fields and in smallest dimensions?

To help answer these research questions, HZDR operates large-scale facilities, which are also used by visiting researchers: the Ion Beam Center, the High-Magnetic Field Laboratory Dresden, and the ELBE Center for High-Power Radiation Sources. HZDR is a member of the Helmholtz Association and has six sites (Dresden, Freiberg, Görlitz, Grenoble, Leipzig, Schenefeld near Hamburg) with almost 1,400 members of staff, of whom about 500 are scientists, including 170 Ph.D. candidates.


About DRESDEN-concept
DRESDEN-concept is the research alliance of TU Dresden and local extramural research and cultural institutions. A total of 33 partner institutions have joined forces in the association to bundle synergies and jointly develop the Dresden science hub into a DRESDEN-concept Science and Innovation Campus.

The acronym DRESDEN stands for Dresden Research and Education Synergies for the Development of Excellence and Novelty and emphasizes the focus of the collaboration: by networking across the boundaries of institutions and subjects, DRESDEN-concept offers researchers an ideal place for science and innovation.


Media contact PoL:
DFG Cluster of Excellence Physics of Life (PoL), TU Dresden
Public relations
Phone: +49 162 4934737
Email: pr.pol@tu-dresden.de


Media contact HZDR:
Simon Schmitt
Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf e.V.
Communications and media
Phone: +49 351 2603400
Email: s.schmitt@hzdr.de