Professor Becker, you are conducting research at the LOEWE Centre for Synthetic Microbiology or SYNMIKRO in the Faculty of Biology at the Philipps University in Marburg, where you are Head of the Chassis and Genomes Department. What is the subject of your research work? The topic is certainly rather abstract for outsiders because most of it involves pure research. If we wanted to understand or modify micro-organisms in the past, we used to manipulate individual genes. We have now made much more progress: we are trying to understand larger genomes and are performing research into how robust a genome is to accept changes in the form of outside genes and what technology is needed for this. Research in synthetic microbiology goes beyond intercepting and modifying individual genes. Our task involves deliberately designing synthetic cells with custom-made properties. As a result, we are also working to develop technologies for biotech research.
What fascinates you about your work? What motivates you? Curiosity is the greatest motivator for me. I want to know how a bacterium manages to pass on its genome reliably and perfectly from one generation to the next. How is an organism able to reproduce itself independently? If you like, these are the questions related to the foundational issues of life.
Synthetic biology raises fundamental questions. Can and should artificial life be created? What is artificial life? How do you handle this at SYNMIKRO and how do you personally deal with this issue? Alongside the scientific and life science research groups, the LOEWE Centre also includes a professorship for social ethics, which spends time looking at risks and ethical responsibility. I personally also try to provide convincing answers with facts and enlarge the entire spectrum of this area of study. The problem in public discussions is often that very few distinctions are made. As a result, potential risks are often assessed wrongly.
Have you ever considered going into business or science? No, I never wanted to move into the business world. When conducting research at a university, I have much more freedom to follow up an issue out of a sense of pure, personal curiosity. And fundamental findings with the potential for applications often develop from this motivational approach. I am also happy to be able to conduct research in Germany because, compared to many other European neighbouring countries, pure research here is viewed in a relatively positive light: innovations need both pure and applied research. I also enjoy teaching and working with students. It is nice to introduce young people to research, inspire them and see how they become increasingly open and then start to ask new questions and reconsider the confines of what is possible.
- Director of the LOEWE Center SYNMIKRO
- Head of the research group "Comparative Genomics"