Topics range from Computational Connectomics to Transfinite Geometry / Approximately 108 million euros for three years

The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) is to establish 17 new Priority Programmes (PP) for 2017. Priority Programmes are established for the purposes of research into the fundamental scientific issues of particularly topical or emerging areas. The new programmes were selected by the Senate of the DFG - Germany's largest research funding organisation and central self-governing organisation for the research community -- from a total of 76 submitted initiatives.

The newly approved Priority Programmes cover the entire spectrum of disciplines, from humanities, social sciences, life sciences and natural sciences to engineering sciences. The topics include the synthesis of nanoparticles in spray flames, new approaches to naming species, scalable data management, the diversity of extrasolar planets and mobility in the Eastern European-Ottoman-Persian region.

All the programmes are highly interdisciplinary and are notable for their application of innovative methods. Funding for early career researchers is a key element and one of the essential prerequisites for the establishment of a new PP. All programmes also have an equal opportunity concept.

The programmes that have been accepted describe the main subject of a Priority Programme. Over the coming months, the DFG will announce a separate call for proposals for the programmes. Proposals will be evaluated in a rigorous review process to determine their scientific quality and their contribution to the general topic in question.

A total of approximately €108 million will be available for the 17 new programmes in the first three-year funding period. The Priority Programmes are generally funded for a period of six years. Currently a total of 93 PPs are being funded. The 17 new initiatives will get underway in 2017.

The new Priority Programmes grouped by scientific discipline are:

Humanities and Social Sciences

  • Transottomanica: Eastern European-Ottoman-Persian Mobility
  • (Coordinator: Prof. Dr. Stefan Rohdewald, University of Giessen)

Natural Sciences

  • Exploration of the Diversity of Extrasolar Planets (Coordinator: Prof. Dr. Heike Rauer, Technical University of Berlin)
  • Mountain Building Processes in 4 Dimensions (4D-MB) (Coordinator: Prof. Dr. Mark R. Handy, Free University of Berlin)

Transfinite Geometry

  • (Coordinator: Prof. Dr. Bernhard Hanke, University of Augsburg)

Life Sciences

  • Computational Connectomics (Coordinator: Prof. Dr. Jochen Triesch, University of Frankfurt)
  • Working Towards Lung Implants (Coordinator: Prof. Dr. Rolf Rossaint, RWTH Aachen University)
  • Taxon-OMICS: New Approaches to the Discovery and Naming of Species and Biodiversity (Coordinator: Prof. Dr. Susanne Sabine Renner, University of Munich)
  • Prokaryotic Small Proteins: an Unknown World (Coordinator: Prof. Dr. Ruth Anne Schmitz-Streit, University of Kiel)

Engineering Sciences

  • Alloys with Complex Compositions - High-Entropy Alloys (CCA-HEA) (Coordinator: Prof. Dr. Uwe Glatzel, University of Bayreuth)
  • Cyclical Damage in High-Performance Concretes in the Experimental Virtual Lab (Coordinator: Prof. Dr. Ludger Lohaus, University of Hannover)
  • Targeted Use of Internal Stress Produced by Reshaping Metallic Components (Coordinator: Prof. Dr. Wolfram Volk, Technical University of Munich)
  • Opus Fluidum Futurum - The Rheology of Reactive, Multiscale, Multiphase Construction Material Systems (Coordinator: Prof. Dr. Viktor Mechtcherine, Technical University of Dresden)
  • Scalable Data Management for Future Hardware (Coordinator: Prof. Dr. Kai-Uwe Sattler, Technical University of Ilmenau)
  • Hybrid and Multimodal Energy Systems: System Theoretical Methods for Transforming and Operating Complex Networks (Coordinator: Prof. Dr. Christian Rehtanz, Technical University of Dortmund)
  • Robust Argumentation Machines (RATIO) (Coordinator: Prof. Dr. Philipp Cimiano, University of Bielefeld)
  • Nanoparticle Synthesis in Spray Flames (SpraySyn): Measurement, Simulation, Processes (Coordinator: Prof. Dr. Christof Schulz, University of Duisburg-Essen)
  • Highly Specific Multidimensional Fractioning of Technical Ultrafine Particle Systems (Coordinator: Prof. Dr. Urs Peuker, Technical University Bergakademie Freiberg)

Royal Holloway physicists have been part of an international effort to demonstrate the reliability of supercomputer simulations in the sciences, achieving a strong proof of this in the subject of computational materials simulation.

The findings are critical at a time of rapid technological change with increasing demand for new materials to make better batteries for mobile devices, catalysts, photocells for energy conversion and much more. Supercomputer simulations at the atomic scale play an increasingly important role in designing them.

The international team asked the question: just how reliable are these simulations? If we are to make the rapid technological advances we all seek, we need to be sure that researchers and engineers across the world can rely on getting the same results. Such reproduceability is a corner stone of science: independent yet identical experiments should produce identical results. Only in this way can science identify 'laws', which lead to new insight and new technologies. However, several recent studies have pointed out that such reproducibility can not be taken for granted.

Over the last few years there has been growing alarm in the scientific community that some results cannot be reproduced. Even predictions of the same physics by different software packages ("supercomputer codes") require caution, since the way in which theoretical models are implemented may affect simulation results.

For the study and design of materials, for instance, there are several independent software packages available based on quantum physics. The UK's leading materials simulation package, "CASTEP" is developed at Royal Holloway in collaboration with with researchers based at Oxford, Cambridge, Durham and York and the Science and Technology Facilities Council. Codes including CASTEP are being used increasingly often in automated procedures with limited human supervision in the new field of "materials informatics." It is therefore essential to know to what extent predicted materials properties depend on the code that was used.

Despite the need for reliable predictions of the properties of materials, the reproducibility of quantum simulations had not been investigated systematically before now. Scientists from Royal Holloway's Department of Physics therefore joined forces with more than 60 colleagues in the UK and worldwide, bringing together the know-how of over 30 prominent institutions.

In their study, which appears in this week's edition of Science, the researchers investigated 40 different software packages and variants to describe the influence of pressure in 71 different crystals.

Due to the international make-up of the team, discussions and collaboration were conducted using online tools – similarly to the way people collaborate to write Wikipedia. The team can now demonstrate that, although a few of the older methods disagree noticeably among themselves, predictions by recent codes are almost identical. They moreover define a quality benchmark that allows the verification of future software developments against their extensive database. New test data are continuously added to a publicly available website ( The researchers hope that this work will lead to to higher standards for materials property simulations, and that it will ease the development of improved simulation codes and methods.

Initial commitment toward a larger 10-year plan will create group to explore and fund frontiers in bioscience

Philanthropist and entrepreneur Paul G. Allen today announced an initial commitment of $100 million to create The Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, whose purpose will be to explore the landscape of bioscience and fund ideas at the frontier of knowledge to advance science and make the world better. As part of the launch, the Frontiers Group announces its first cohort of funded projects with four new Allen Distinguished Investigators (ADI) and two Allen Discovery Centers in partnership with Stanford University and Tufts University. 

"To make the kind of transformational advances we seek and thus shape a better future, we must invest in scientists willing to pursue what some might consider out-of-the-box approaches at the very edges of knowledge," says Mr. Allen. "This of course entails a risk of setbacks and failures. But without risk, there is rarely significant reward, and unless we try truly novel approaches, we may never find the answers we seek." 

The Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, headquartered in Seattle, Wash., will engage in continuous dialogue with scientists, visionaries and innovators around the world via external listening tours, workshops, symposia and major events. The group will synthesize their findings to find the untapped areas of exploration that will lead to transformational insights and achievements in science.  

There will be two paths for funding new ideas: the Allen Distinguished Investigators for frontier explorations with exceptional creativity and catalytic impact; and the Allen Discovery Centers at partner institutions for leadership-driven, compass-guided research. 

Tom Skalak, Ph.D., is the founding Executive Director of The Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group. He was previously the Vice President for Research at the University of Virginia, where he conducted bioengineering research for 28 years, spanning topics from the cellular basis of microvascular adaptation to computational modeling of tissue pattern formation, and is a past-president of the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering and a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors. 

"Over the next 50 years bioscience will undergo a radical transformation as advancements in life sciences converge with mathematics, physical sciences and engineering," says Skalak. "The time is now to make this type of transformative investment in bioscience to advance the field and ultimately to make the world better."

"Paul Allen is a visionary who has proven that it's possible to tackle scientific advancements in new ways," says Allan Jones, Ph.D., Chief Executive Officer of the Allen Institute. "The Frontiers Group will be identifying those breakthroughs yet to come, complementing his ongoing significant investments in the Allen Institute for Brain Science and Allen Institute for Cell Science."

The Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group's unique approach and landscape perspective are crucial to uncovering the creative ideas that span disciplines and will revolutionize scientific thinking. 

David Baltimore, Ph.D., Nobel Laureate, former President of Caltech, and a member of the Advisory Council of the Frontiers Group, says, "Paul Allen has a compelling long-range vision and refreshing openness to new ideas, which is essential for exploration. The Frontiers Group is cultivating a special culture of creative involvement that will encourage the larger scientific community to continuously re-invent itself, a hallmark of great science."

The Frontiers Group announces the first round of funded projects with four new Allen Distinguished Investigators and two inaugural Allen Discovery Centers. Additional Allen Discovery Centers and Allen Distinguished Investigators will be identified and named via both curation and open competitions periodically throughout a ten year period. 

Allen Discovery Centers 

Allen Discovery Centers are a new type of center for leadership-driven, compass-guided research in partnership with major research organizations and universities. The Frontiers Group will typically provide $20 million over eight years with $10 million in partner leverage, for a total scope of $30 million each. The new Allen Discovery Centers are:

Stanford University, "Multiscale, Systems Modeling of Macrophage Infection," led by Markus Covert, Ph.D. 

Creating multiscale supercomputer models that span from the inner workings of cells to the interactions between thousands of cells is a grand challenge of systems biology, and successful models are poised to have tremendous impact for researchers who study disease. The Allen Discovery Center at Stanford University will combine the expertise of computational modelers, bioengineers and bioscientists to create new models that comprehensively represent large systems of whole cells, as well as their dynamic environments and interactions. Researchers will begin by focusing on Salmonella infection of immune cells called macrophages: a system that provides insight not just into how bacteria interact with the immune system, but how drug resistance in populations of bacteria first arises. The team includes researchers at Stanford University and the University of Virginia, as well as former Google software engineers.

Tufts University, "Reading and Writing the Morphogenetic Code," led by Michael Levin, Ph.D. 

Understanding how complex organ systems are created and repaired requires investigating the algorithms and computations performed by cell networks during pattern regulation. The Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University will seek to read, interpret and manipulate the biological code that determines anatomical structure and function during embryogenesis, regeneration and tumor suppression. A unique focus area is the processing of instructive patterning information via bioelectric signaling among cells. This work holds the potential to transform the fields of biology and medicine, as well as make crucial links in evolutionary theory and cancer biology by bridging the gap between molecular details and the larger-scale control of biological systems. The team includes researchers at Tufts University, Harvard University, Princeton University and others.

Allen Distinguished Investigators 

The Allen Distinguished Investigator (ADI) program supports early-stage research with the potential to reinvent entire fields. Allen Distinguished Investigators are passionate thought leaders, explorers and innovators who seek world-changing breakthroughs. With grants typically between $1 million and $1.5 million each, the Frontiers Group provides these scientists with support to produce new directions in their respective fields. The new ADI recipients are:

Ethan Bier, Ph.D., University of California, San Diego ($1.5 million), "Biological Innovation and Active Genetics" 

A major unsolved mystery in evolutionary developmental biology is how biological innovation happens: where do new body forms come from? Using pioneering technology known as active genetics to produce large genetic modifications, Bier will seek to uncover the design principles used in evolution to make large-scale physical changes across species. The practical applications of this work promise to guide novel synthetic biology designs that could revolutionize medicine, agriculture and care of the environment.

James J. Collins, Ph.D., Massachusetts Institute of Technology ($1.5 million), "Synthetic Biology Approaches to Antimicrobial Resistance" 

The rise of antibiotic resistance has become a public health crisis. Collins will use principles of synthetic biology to engineer safe, frequently consumed bacteria to detect and kill dangerous bacteria such as those that cause MRSA infections, the most frequently identified drug-resistant pathogen in United States hospitals. His novel strategy of rapidly re-designing beneficial changes in bacterial genomes could usher in a new era of design-based medicine. This frontier research will also enable scientists to understand the root causes of antibiotic resistance and the mechanisms by which traditional antibiotics work to target disease.

Jennifer Doudna, Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley ($1.5 million), "Antiviral Machinery and Cell Editing Platforms" 

Nature has likely evolved multiple methods of host defense, and many remain unknown. Building on her pioneering work to develop CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology, Doudna will look beyond the typically employed bacterial proteins to similar proteins in diverse organism and also seek out new RNA-targeting strategies. Early research shows that archaea, which can be found in extreme environments with high temperatures, have proteins similar to Cas9 but that may be capable of reaching areas of the genome currently inaccessible in CRISPR methods. Targeting RNA would offer a way to edit cell behaviors without targeting the genome directly, opening up a vast new frontier. This work has the potential to introduce novel gene editing technologies to fight human disease, improve agriculture, and promote environmental health.

Bassem Hassan, Ph.D., Institut du Cerveau et de la Moelle épinière ($1.5 million), "How Developmental Noise in Neural Circuit Development Determines the Unique Behavior of Individuals" 

Even though we all share fundamental neurological properties, the details of individual neural circuits can vary dramatically among individuals. Hassan has pinpointed a neural circuit in flies that serves as an ideal testing ground for understanding how molecular noise sculpts individual neural circuits during maturation and development. Unraveling the causal link between the dynamic wiring of neural circuits during development and the emergence of behavioral variability will help determine the origin of individual differences within a population, and how individual variations contribute to the fitness of the entire population. The work ultimately will shed light on what makes each of us distinct.


Researchers have discovered a so far unknown formation mechanism of cavitation bubbles by means of a model calculation. In the Science Advances journal, they describe how oil-repellent and oil-attracting surfaces influence a passing oil flow. Depending on the viscosity of the oil, a steam bubble forms in the transition area. This so-called cavitation may damage material of e.g. ship propellers or pumps. However, it may also have a positive effect, as it may keep components at a certain distance and, thus, prevent damage. 

Materials and friction researchers wanted to know which influence chemically different surfaces have on the flow behavior of a lubricant. In particular, they were interested in flow behavior in nanometer-sized lubrication gaps, a critical case close to boundary friction, i.e. shortly before the surfaces are in direct contact. For this purpose, they generated a mathematical model, in which they varied viscosity of the lubricant and surface properties of the walls. “We were very surprised to find cavitation in the transition area of the surfaces, i.e. at the boundary between oil-attracting and oil-repellent,” Dr. Lars Pastewka and Professor Peter Gumbsch of KIT’s Institute for Applied Materials report.

Cavitation is a known and feared physical phenomenon due to its destructive force. “Existing cavitation models assume a certain geometry that causes cavitation, such as a constriction in a pump or a ship’s propeller producing high flow rates,” Pastewka explains. Here, Bernoulli’s physical law applies, according to which static pressure of a fluid decreases with increasing flow rate. If static pressure drops below the evaporation pressure of the fluid, steam bubbles are formed. If pressure increases again, e.g. if the fluid flow rate decreases after having passed a constriction in a pump, the steam in the bubbles condenses suddenly and they implode. The resulting extreme pressure and temperature peaks lead to typical cavitation craters and significant erosion even of hardened steel.

“This sudden implosion of steam bubbles, however, does not occur in most lubricated tribosystems,” Dr. Daniele Savio says, who has meanwhile taken up work at the Fraunhofer Institute for Mechanics of Materials in Freiburg. “As the fluid gap between two contacting surfaces usually is very narrow, the cavitation bubbles cannot grow and, hence, remain stable. The cavitation bubble then has no destructive effect and even serves as a buffer that reduces wear and friction of the surfaces. It is therefore important to generate this positive effect in a controlled manner,” he adds.

The simulation model of Savio and his colleagues confirms that chemically alternating surfaces may lead to cavitation bubbles. Their publication in Science Advances starts from the question of whether cavitation is the rule or an exception in situations where a lubricant flows between two surfaces. “Usually, surfaces in engines or cylinder systems are never homogeneous, i.e. only oil-attracting or oil-repellent,” Savio points out. “The effect calculated by us may therefore be encountered wherever alternating neighboring surface properties exist in lubricated engines and pumps.”

So far, cavitation has been considered a geometric effect resulting from shear forces, flow rate, and pressure differences exclusively. “It is a completely new finding that cavitation can also occur in transition areas of alternating surface properties,” Pastewka emphasizes. By the specific adjustment of surface chemistry, the researchers are convinced, interaction between surface and lubricant can be improved considerably. In the model simulations, an improved surface separation by 10% was observed.

“A distance increased by 10% means that normal forces and load carrying capacities of plain bearings can be increased,” Savio adds. In any case, surface chemistry has to be re-evaluated as a design element in mechanical engineering, the scientists agree.

A Lake Erie algae bloom in September 2009. This photo was taken on the southeast shore of Pelee Island, Ontario. Image credit: Tom Archer

Large-scale changes to agricultural practices will be required to meet the goal of reducing levels of algae-promoting phosphorus in Lake Erie by 40 percent, a new University of Michigan-led, multi-institution supercomputer modeling study concludes. 

Last month, the U.S. and Canadian governments called for a 40-percent reduction, from 2008 levels, in phosphorus runoff from farms and other sources into Lake Erie. The nutrient feeds an oxygen-depleted "dead zone" in the lake and toxin-producing algal blooms, including a 2014 event that contaminated the drinking water of more than 400,000 people near Toledo for two days.

The main driver of the harmful algal blooms is elevated phosphorus from watersheds draining to Lake Erie's western basin, particularly from the heavily agricultural Maumee River watershed. About 85 percent of the phosphorus entering Lake Erie from the Maumee River comes from farm fertilizers and manure.

The new study, which integrates results from six modeling teams, was released today by the U-M Water Center. It concludes that meeting the 40-percent reduction target will require widespread use of strong fertilizer-management practices, significant conversion of cropland to grassland and more targeted conservation efforts.

"Our results suggest that for most of the scenarios we tested, it will not be possible to achieve the new target nutrient loads without very significant, large-scale implementation of these agricultural practices," said U-M aquatic ecologist Don Scavia, lead author of the new study and director of the Graham Sustainability Institute, which oversees the Water Center.

"It appears that traditional voluntary, incentive-based conservation programs would have to be implemented at an unprecedented scale or are simply not sufficient to reach these environmental goals, and that new complementary policies and programs are needed." 

The researchers developed a list of potentially effective cropland management practices after consulting with agricultural and environmental experts. They examined various options for fertilizer application, tillage operations, crop rotations and land conversion.

Various management options were combined to create 12 scenarios that were each tested using six computer models. The watershed models tested the ability of each scenario to achieve the proposed 40 percent phosphorus-reduction target. The scenarios examine both the total amount of phosphorus, known as TP, and the amount of dissolved reactive phosphorus (DRP), the form of the nutrient that is most stimulating to algae.

"The most promising scenarios included widespread use of nutrient management practices—especially subsurface application of phosphorus-based fertilizers—along with substantial conversion of cropland to grassland and extensive use of buffer strips," said study co-author Jay Martin of Ohio State University.

Even so, the researchers determined that seven of the 12 cropland-management scenarios would not meet the goal of a 40-percent reduction in total phosphorus entering western Lake Erie from the Maumee River watershed.

One of the five scenarios capable of reaching the TP target (Scenario 6) requires taking nearly 30,000 acres of cropland out of production and putting more than 1.5 million acres under stringent conservation practices. Because the average size of a farm in the Maumee River watershed is 235 acres, this is equivalent to impacting more than 6,300 farms.

One of the scenarios (Scenario 2) that reach the target for dissolved reactive phosphorus requires enhanced nutrient management on all 3.1 million acres of row-crop fields in the watershed, which equates to impacting roughly 13,000 farms.

"While there may be a temptation to select one model based on 'superior performance,' there is no one way to evaluate model performance. Instead, we chose to use multiple models because together they represent the range of reasonable representations of the real world," said study co-author Margaret Kalcic, one of the U-M Water Center's lead modelers.

"Research like this is valuable to help inform on-the-ground conservation efforts, such as the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Program currently underway in Ohio. We will only solve this problem with the right mix of land and water management practices, deployed in the right place and amount," said study co-author Scott Sowa of The Nature Conservancy.

Meeting phosphorus-reduction targets has proved difficult elsewhere in the United States. Specific goals for reducing the size of the Gulf of Mexico's oxygen-starved "dead zone" have existed for 15 years, but almost no progress has been made. And water-quality improvement goals for the Chesapeake Bay were in place for decades before some limited progress was made.

The new Lake Erie report is titled "Informing Lake Erie agriculture nutrient management via scenario evaluation." In addition to Scavia, Kalcic, Martin and Sowa, the authors are U-M's Rebecca Logsdon Muenich, Jennifer Read and Yu-Chen Wang; Noel Aloysius and Marie Gildow of Ohio State University; Chelsie Boles, Todd Redder and Joseph DePinto of LimnoTech; Remegio Confesor of Heidelberg University; and Haw Yen of Texas A&M University.

Funding for the study was provided by the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation. The study findings have been submitted to a peer-reviewed scientific journal for publication.

The U-M Water Center addresses critical and emerging regional and national water resource challenges. Its mission is to foster collaborative research that informs the policy and management decisions that affect our waters.

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