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Roland Eils – a mathematician surrounded by molecular biologists

Not that long ago, the Mathematical Faculty of the University of Heidelberg rejected his doctoral thesis, but now Roland Eils is professor at the very same faculty. The mathematician, whose doctoral thesis was ahead of its time, and his two research groups at the University of Heidelberg and the German Cancer Research Centre (DKFZ) work in the fields of systems biology and oncology. Eils is also one of three founding directors of the systems biology centre BIOQUANT.

Roland Eils is professor of bioinformatics at the University of Heidelberg and the German Cancer Research Centre. In addition, he is one of the founding directors of the systems biology centre BIOQUANT. © University of Heidelberg

Roland Eils always planned to study mathematics; at school, he found biology quite boring and gave up the subject as soon as he could: ‘learning about mice dentistry' did not really interest him a great deal. However, he admits that his decision to abandon biology meant that he missed out on some truly exciting topics like genetics and evolutionary biology, which were taught in the final years of school. "I had to study these subjects on my own later," said Eils who, after the school leaving exam, went on to study mathematics and computer sciences along with linguistics, as a practical contrast to the scientific subjects he had chosen.

After finishing his degree, he was awarded a DAAD grant for a two-year language stay in Indonesia. After his return he planned to do a doctorate in computer linguistics. But in the end this did not happen. Through pure chance and thanks to the head of the Indonesian Red Cross he met Thomas Cremer, professor of human genetics at the University of Heidelberg, who sparked off his enthusiasm for this field, and eventually led to his PhD in the Department of Human Genetics. "Being a mathematician, I initially found it quite difficult to get into molecular cell biology, but I gradually became more and more fascinated by the subject and have remained so ever since. This was a completely unplanned and rather accidental route into the biosciences, but I have never regretted my decision," said Eils recalling the beginnings of his molecular biology career.

Three-dimensional packaging and chromosome activity

Eils took only two and a half years to do his doctorate focusing on the three-dimensional structure of genomic DNA. He is more than happy with the results: he was the first person to detect a correlation between the three-dimensional packaging and the different activity of the two female X chromosomes, which meant he was able to refute the existing official doctrine. “This was fantastic, particularly so because as a mathematician I was able to contribute to a paradigm change in cell biology.”

Combination of mathematics and molecular biology was too exotic

However, something that seemed so promising became a nightmare: three days before he was to defend his PhD thesis, Eils learnt that the faculty had rejected it. Two professors had vetoed, something that had never previously occurred. The two professors had no doubts about the quality of the results, but they did not regard it as sufficiently mathematical. The Faculty of Biosciences could not help Eils, telling him that they were not responsible for mathematicians. He had actually given up hope that his doctoral thesis would ever be accepted, but six months later he was relieved to hear that two renowned international reviewers had argued for it to be accepted – a huge piece of luck for Eils who, although he did not get the best mark, still achieved a respectable result. He now tells the story as a funny anecdote, although he did not feel at all like laughing at the time. Now he has achieved the satisfaction of being offered the post of professor at the very same faculty. “I did not think that a journey could be so rough,” said Eils adding that “I must have been slightly ahead of my time because back then it was very exotic to combine mathematics and molecular biology in a scientific thesis. Nowadays, it is no longer unusual.” Eils regards his doctoral thesis as one of his most important projects ever, calling it his “awakening project”.

An own research group thanks to BioFuture Prize

After a research period in Grenoble, France, Eils returned to Heidelberg hoping to establish his own research group. And he was lucky: in 1999, he was awarded the BMBF’s BioFuture Prize with a purse of 1.2 million euros for research based on his PhD thesis – and this sum was a solid basis for establishing an own group. Eils sees this distinction as the “breakthrough in his career”. From now on he could virtually choose where he wanted to do research and what he wanted to do it on. But his ultimate wish was to work with something that was of practical relevance. Prof. Peter Lichter, head of the Department of Molecular Genetics at the DKFZ, and the cancer researcher and later Nobel Laureate Prof. Harald zur Hausen who was the director of the DKFZ, made Eils an offer he could not refuse.

Two-fold bioinformatics research and application

Chromosome preparation in vivo and as a systems biology model © University of Heidelberg

Since then he has been doing research in two areas: At the DKFZ, he is head of the Department of Theoretical Bioinformatics where he focuses on computer-assisted oncology. With his team, he supports mainly experimental research groups in processing the huge amounts of data produced in genomics research, for example data generated by microarray analyses. The major focus of these activities is the examination of tumours in young children, including neuroblastomas.

At the University of Heidelberg, where he is director of the Department of Bioinformatics and Functional Genomics at the Institute of Pharmacy and Molecular Biotechnology (IPMB), Eils and his team focus on systems biology topics in the field of molecular cell biology. That is why the research group has its scientific home at the Centre for Systems Biology BIOQUANT of which Eils is the founding director. Here, the researchers are working on gaining a detailed understanding of the complex processes of apoptosis (programmed cell death) in a systematic way based on models. Defective apoptosis plays a major role in the development of tumours, amongst other things.

Successfully advancing a broad range of different research projects

BIOQUANT building on the Heidelberg University campus (Photo: University of Heidelberg)

At BIOQUANT, Eils sees himself as "chief IT officer" whilst the other two founding directors, Prof. Hans-Georg Kräusslich and Prof. Jürgen Wolfrum, are the "chief medical officer" and "chief technology officer" respectively. It is his mission to successfully advance the three major fields of research far beyond the funding period of three years. These projects use systems biology methods to investigate six of the most important signal transmission pathways that are defective in cancers, including the cell-cell communication of tissue, the molecular machinery and the interaction between virus and host on the single cell level.

Heidelberg as systems biology capital

In the meantime, Eils has rejected every other offer by renowned universities, both in Germany and abroad. He has remained true to Heidelberg out of conviction because – as he puts it – systems biology is an interface between mathematics and the life sciences and because there is no better place than Heidelberg to pursue research in systems biology. “The excellent mixture of biology, medicine, physics and mathematics, which is combined in a small area in Heidelberg, is a unique and definite advantage.” And he adds, “for me, Heidelberg is the capital of systems biology.”

During his holidays, Eils engineers bacteria

When asked how he manages so many different activities simultaneously, Eils says: “Having children has made me an expert in organisation. With the children, I was not able to dedicate 70 hours or more per week on my doctoral thesis and so I quickly learned how to do several things at once. There was no time to waste.” However, Eils also admits that his social life has suffered due to his work: “There was just not enough time to take a coffee break.” Nevertheless, Eils puts great emphasis on the human factor: “I have a fantastic team, and would not be able to do all I do without my team.” In addition to his research and two chairs, Eils has also been operating a Steinbeis Transfer Centre focusing on the transfer of technology into industry. When he was a student, he was tempted to work in industry, but this is no longer the case: “I am fascinated by research; and the general conditions are excellent in Germany. The freedom I have here is of inestimable value for me,” said Eils who nevertheless, along with all his other activities, founded the company “phase-it intelligent solutions AG” in Heidelberg. This company deals with computer-based oncology, and it has since been sold to a bigger company. In addition, there is also synthetic biology: during the semester breaks, Eils and a group of students are working on the development of completely new organisms that do not actually occur in nature and which can be used for the extermination of tumour cells and pathogens. Last year the team received numerous prizes and a gold medal in the renowned iGEM contest for their “Ecolicence to kill” project. Prof. Roland Eils also directs the two biggest national systems biology networks. It is therefore safe to assume that the scientific career of this mathematician in the field of molecular biology will not grind to a halt in the near future.

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