Institute of biophysics (IBF)


The Institute of Biophysics (IBF) results from the merging of five research structures of the National Research Council of Italy (CNR). This reorganisation comes at an appropriate time when Biophysics is gaining momentum on the world scientific scene, although its benefits risk being minimal in the present Italian situation, characterized by repeated cuts in government funding of basic research. The impact of these cuts is all the more drastic in those interdisciplinary sectors that by their own nature are poorly represented in the university research system and are not usually producers of short term technological innovation.
The pre-existing institutions that have been merged into IBF are distributed throughout Italy (Palermo in the south, Pisa in the center, Genova, Milano and Trento in the north) and cover a wide range of research fields, sharing as a common feature the application of typical methodologies and techniques of the physical sciences to the study of the structure and functions of biological systems. A significant side interest concerns physico-chemical investigations of the impact of anthropic and non-anthropic environmental factors on ecosystems.
Examples of techniques employed at the Institute for the study of biological systems are: optical and magnetic spectroscopies; micro- and nano-scopies; molecular modelling based on computer calculations of statistical and quantum mechanics; electronic instrumentation interfaced with digital systems for stimulation and acquisition of electrophysiological signals; custom software for signal analysis and model interpretation. Knowledgeable use of these techniques often makes it possible to go beyond the qualitative description of the macro and micro structures of the living matter, moving on to the identification of the molecular mechanisms underlying function. This novel cognitive approach, in ever-growing conceptual and technological development, characterizes Biophysics as a frontier science, strongly interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary by its own scope. Over the years, Biophysics has firmly established itself as a fundamental discipline whose contributions have gone well beyond the mere application of physical techniques to the study of living systems. It plays a crucial role in the development of new methodologies and establishes ever closer links with other frontier areas of the biological and medical sciences (structure-function relations in biological molecules, molecular biology, bioenergetics, bioinformatics). This evolution has widened the range of skills required of the individual researcher and has increased the need for teams with diversified specialisations, who are able to tackle problems of ever increasing complexity using complementary approaches.
The present staff of IBF includes physicists, chemists, biochemists, molecular biologists and physiologists, many of whom have long experience in adopting interdisciplinary approaches to the study of biological systems. The preparations studied span a wide variety of biological systems: from proteins and nucleic acids to supramolecular structures; from nerve cells to higher plants; from microorganisms to cell cultures from various organisms. The phenomena under study touch on a wide range of complementary areas and are often approached with novel methods and ad hoc instrumentation developed within the Institute itself. The aim is always to gain an integrated and multidisciplinary viewpoint that may allow advancing our understanding of biological processes beyond a mere qualitative description. The research laboratories of the Italian National Research Council are particularly well suited to meet the need for interdisciplinarity and cultural integration. It was thanks to the work of small CNR groups (funded in the sixties by the "enterprises" promoted by the CNR President Giovanni Polvani) that Italy could keep pace with the world-wide fast emergence of new research fields, such as computer science, molecular biology, and ather modern areas of biology, such as biophysics. CNR's capability to embark on pioneer fields that have not yet been consolidated within the academic system is the most important distinguishing feature of this research organisation. Because of this, CNR can play a very important role that is complementary (not competitive or antagonistic) to that of the University. It is to be hoped that any new legislation will preserve this role to CNR, while encouraging synergies and collaborations with the University sector and other research organisations, in a scenario where reciprocal staff exchanges are made smoother at all levels.
The following is a brief historical outline of the 5 pre-existing CNR research institutions merged in IBF: the Institute of Biophysics (IB) in Pisa, the Institute of Cybernetics and Biophysics (ICB) in Genova, the Centre for Plant Cellular and Molecular Biology (CBCMP) in Milano, the Institute for Interdisciplinary Applications of Physics (IAIF) in Palermo and the section of "Biomolecules and Biological Membranes" of the Centre for Solid State Physics (CeFSA) in Trento. The former Institutes located in Pisa (IB) and Genoa (ICB) originated in the early sixties on the initiative of the physicists Adriano Gozzini and Antonio Borsellino, funded by the CNR "Enterprise on Cybernetics". By the end of that decade they had been transformed into intramural CNR research laboratories. Borsellino and Gozzini, linked also by fellow memories of the Scuola Normale, shared a common dream of describing the complex phenomena of the living matter on the basis of the "first principles" of Physics. They improvised adventurous research teams, at times scientifically naive, but strongly driven by the charisma of the leaders and by an extraordinary enthusiasm and enterprising spirit. The two founders believed that the recipe for success was to gather scientists from the most diverse branches of science (physicists, biologists, chemists, mathematicians, engineers and medical researchers) engaged in a true interdisciplinary approach to the problems in cybernetics and biophysics. The development of the two Institutes from that time to the present day has inevitably led to specialisations and loss of the naive universal vocation that inspired the founders. The particular topics that are currently investigated in Pisa and Genoa are described in detail below.
The former research centre in Milano (CBCMP), established in the seventies at the Department of Biology of the University where it is still located, was the first CNR laboratory dedicated to the study of plant physiology with the methods of modern biophysics, biochemistry and cell physiology. Founded by Sergio Tonzig, professor of Botanics, the centre has expanded its activities focusing on three main aspects of plant life: photosynthesis, bioenergetics and molecular genetics. Due to the emphasis on the molecular mechanisms of the phenomena under study, the research carried out at the IBF section of Milano is competitive on the international scene and homogeneous and complementary to that of the other branches of the Institute.
The former IAIF in Palermo was founded in 1980 on the initiative of a group of physicists, inspired by Fermi's pupil Edoardo Amaldi. The early mission of IAIF was that of multidisciplinary studies in areas that ranged from astrophysics to theoretical physics and biophysics. Over the years, biophysics has increasingly gained momentum and today represents over 90% of the laboratory's activity both in terms of staff and funds allocation. Presently, the main research topic at the IBF section of Palermo is the physical-chemistry of the processes involved in molecular and supramolecular aggregation. However, the application of the methods of theoretical physics to the modelling of complex phenomena, in particular those that occur in the nervous system, represents another significant activity.
The section on Biomolecules and Biological Membranes of the former CeFSA centre in Trento, was created in 1992 and is the youngest research group that has merged into IBF. CeFSA itself was established in 1981 and represents a rare example of formal collaboration between CNR and a non-university organisation, the Istituto Trentino di Cultura funded by the Province of Trento to promote local scientific and technological development. The research focus in the IBF section of Trento is on the structure and the mechanisms of action of bacterial toxins, a particularly topical subject given the present problem of bioterrorism, but also a crucial area of study because its molecular aspects have correlations with the formation of plaques in endogenous pathologies such as Alzheimer's and amiloidoses.
Today's CNR Institute of Biophysics is a new, integrated reality that can provide a frame of reference for much of the biophysical research in Italy, not only within CNR. It goes without saying that the growth and development of the Institute involve long-term, demanding work both in scientific and organisational terms, and that its chances of success hinge on the availability of adequate means, both in terms of funding and human resources. Even more importantly, the governing bodies responsible for the allocation of resources must share with scientists the notion that only through the promotion of basic research aimed at advancing knowledge will it be possible for biophysics to reap socially useful results. Profitable application of these results to technological development and innovation must necessarily involve industry and private companies as main actors. While IBF is ready and eager to profit from any chance for qualified collaborations with such actors, its most natural ways of contributing to the transfer of knowledge are its interactions and synergies with universities and other scientific organisations in Italy and abroad, with local institutions, and within multinational research projects.
The Institute devotes much effort to the training of young people for research in the fields of Biology and Physics of biological matter, in close collaboration with local universities. This activity, which is particularly strong in the former CNR centres (Milano and Trento), includes the supervision of undergraduate students carrying out their thesis work at our laboratories, the support and training of graduate students, and the granting of research fellowships to young graduates and post-doctoral researchers. These young minds contribute significantly to the research activities at IBF, often partecipating, after an initial period of training, in the development of new ideas and the acquisition of important new findings. Below is a list of the research topics covered at IBF, grouped under seven main research areas, and subgrouped according to the geographical section where the research study is being carried out.