press release, 07. December 2021

New UFZ Department "Computational Biology"

Prof Dr Jörg Hackermüller heads the department and was appointed to the University of Leipzig

If pollutants enter the environment, they can disrupt ecosystems and affect human health. When elucidating the effects, the most modern molecular biological technologies are used. However, these often generate large amounts of data. Prof Dr Jörg Hackermüller and his team at the UFZ want to not only use and optimise these technologies but also develop new bioinformatics methods that enable even more efficient and accurate data evaluation. He becomes now head of the new Department of Computational Biology at the UFZ and is jointly appointed professor at the University of Leipzig.

Prof Dr Jörg Hackermüller Photo: Sebastian Wiedling / UFZ
Prof Dr Jörg Hackermüller
Photo: Sebastian Wiedling / UFZ

Our lifestyle requires the use of a wide range of chemicals - there are around 350,000 of them on the market. In many cases, little is known about their impact on human health and ecosystems. Where do the substances occur in the environment? In what concentrations and combinations can they affect our health? What exactly happens in the body - in both the short term and the long term? There are still many open questions in the research field of environmental health. With his research at the UFZ Department of Computational Biology, Hackermüller and his team want to develop new bioinformatics, systems biology, and data science procedures and integrate them into the methodological approaches of environmental health research. Using modern molecular biological technologies, it is now possible to uncover many correlations and modes of action. The challenge here is the evaluation of the endless flood of data. "This can be done only with bioinformatic methods", says Hackermüller. "With the help of bioinformatics, we can gain a better understanding of the toxicologically relevant mechanisms involved in the development of environmentally induced diseases".

In addition to the development of evaluation procedures that adhere to principles of reproducible research, methods of artificial intelligence (AI) are among the focal points of his research at the department. "We want to test the extent to which AI can be used to predict the toxicity and health effects of chemicals", explains Hackermüller. "Because today we are dealing with a large number of substances and an even larger number of possible mixtures of these substances. If we could rank these toxicologically using AI prediction tools, that would be a great gain". Because the measurements and laboratory experiments necessary for a toxicological assessment could then be used in a highly targeted way.

Since 1 November, Hackermüller has had another task in addition to heading the new department. That’s because he has been appointed to the professorship "Integrative Bioinformatics - Computational Biology" by the University of Leipzig and the UFZ. He will teach data science principles and computer-assisted methods in toxicology to students of the bioinformatics master’s programme. When asked what particularly appeals to him about his work, Hackermüller answers: "The wide range of topics. I consider it a great privilege that I can pursue highly diverse research projects through bioinformatics. And environmental health research is one such socially relevant topic that motivates me every day".

Jörg Hackermüller, born in 1976 in Steyr in Upper Austria, studied chemistry with a focus on biochemistry and theoretical chemistry at the University of Vienna and at the  Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. In 2005, he received his doctorate from the University of Vienna for modelling the binding of stability-regulating proteins to RNA. The practical research was conducted at the Novarits Institutes for BioMedical Research (NIBR). Between 2005 and 2015, he conducted research at the Fraunhofer Institute for Cell Therapy and Immunology (IZI) in Leipzig. From 2007 onwards, Hackermüller headed the RNomics working group there. In 2011, he took over the Helmholtz University Young Investigators Group "Bioinformatics & Transcriptomics" - which was linked to the UFZ Department of Molecular Systems Biology and the Institute of Informatics at the University of Leipzig - which he headed until October 2021. On 1 November 2021, Hackermüller was jointly appointed by the University of Leipzig and the UFZ to the professorship "Integrative Bioinformatics - Computational Biology". At the UFZ, he heads the newly founded department of "Computational Biology".

Further information

Prof Dr Jörg Hackermüller
UFZ Department of Computational Biology

UFZ press office

Susanne Hufe
Phone: +49 341 235-1630

In the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ), scientists conduct research into the causes and consequences of far-reaching environmental changes. Their areas of study cover water resources, ecosystems of the future, environmental technologies and biotechnologies, the effects of chemicals in the environment, modelling and social-scientific issues. The UFZ employs more than 1,100 staff at its sites in Leipzig, Halle and Magdeburg. It is funded by the Federal Government, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt.

The Helmholtz Association contributes to solving major challenges facing society, science and the economy with top scientific achievements in six research fields: Energy; Earth and Environment; Health; Key Technologies; Matter; and Aeronautics, Space and Transport. With some 39,000 employees in 19 research centres, the Helmholtz Association is Germany’s largest scientific organisation.
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