Core research

The University of Tübingen specializes in the following areas of core research:


Where research is as complex as the brain itself

Tübingen’s neuroscientists are exploring the human brain and its functions in numerous areas using many different methods. This research is carried out within the Center for Integrative Neuroscience (CIN).

Scientists are analyzing brain functions such as perception, memory, communication and actions right down to the genetic and molecular-biological levels. Alongside non-invasive experimental procedures such as magnetic resonance tomography and magnetic encephalography, they use computer simulation and animal experimentation to explore the workings of the human brain.

This research into brain function aims to help us better understand the origins of neurological diseases. CIN also works on the further development of neurological diagnostic procedures. In this area, doctors and biologists are assisted by specialists in the fields of Linguistics, Computer Science and Philosophy.

The Center of Neurology strengthens the ties between research in Neuroscience and its practical application. The Center was founded jointly by the non-profit Hertie Foundation, the state of Baden-Württemberg, the University, its Medical Faculty and the University Clinics.

The Center’s scientific activity is part of the Hertie Institute for Clinical Brain Research (HIH). Researchers here focus on a deeper understanding of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Patient treatment benefits directly from the results of their work. The HIH also carries out cutting-edge research into tumors and infections affecting the brain.

The University is also home to part of the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE). The Center’s working groups in Tübingen investigate the origins and consequences of neurodegenerative disorders in the aging human brain – particularly Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

The collaborative research center Robust Vision — Inference Principles and Neural Mechanisms (SFB 1233) is working in the area of biological and machine vision. Many mammals are able to see under widely differing conditions. They can identify objects reliably in changing light and from various perspectives. This ability, which the researchers call “robust visual interference,” requires complex calculations by nerve cells of the visual system. The aim is to better understand the fundamental workings of biological vision, and to further develop artificial vision systems according to that template.

The Graduate Training Centre of Neuroscience (GTC) / International Max Planck Research School for Cognitive and Systems Neuroscience (IMPRS) is the centerpiece of neuroscience training in Tübingen. It runs three master programs and a doctoral program with supplementary neuroscience and soft skills training. The individual graduate programs provide a markedly broad spectrum of neuroscience research and training opportunities.

The ERC program SPECFIN: Spectral Fingerprints of Neuronal interactions addresses the question of how cognition results from complex neuronal interactions within and between brain regions. If successful, the work will constitute a paradigm shift in cognitive neuroscience by linking two largely disconnected disciplines: human and monkey electrophysiology and will establish a powerful new framework to understand cognitive processes in terms of mechanistic, network-level building blocks.

Language and Cognition

Building bridges between the Sciences and Humanities

The many facets of linguistic research at the University of Tübingen are revealed in a combination of far-reaching investigations into various languages and in high-grade interdisciplinary work. The linguistic center, Tübinger Zentrum für Linguistik (TüZLi), serves as a platform for coordinating this research, as well as providing an organizational framework for the interdisciplinary expansion of cooperation both within the faculty and on an interfaculty basis between the disciplines of Linguistics, Cultural Studies, Cognition- and Neuroscience.

The guiding concept is the development of an integrative view of language as a natural and cultural phenomenon. This perspective combines the linguistic investigation of the structure, interpretation, development and processing of language with cognition and neuroscientific research on the biological basis and cultural points of view of the shaping of human language. The center’s aim is to build bridges between the Sciences and Humanities using language as a focus of research.

A current example of this joint research at TüZLi is the collaborative research center 833 The Construction of Meaning – the Dynamics and Adaptivity of Linguistic Structures initiated in July 2009. It seeks to understand how meaning arises, both in spoken and unspoken communication, as well as during the processing of language and under the specific conditions of a unique grammar. This research is carried out jointly by Linguistics, Cognition Science, Psychology and Neuroscience.

The ERC project WIDE: Wide Incremental learning with Discrimination nEtworks aims to deepen our understanding of how we produce and understand words in everyday speech. "WIDE", highlights a second aspect in which this project makes a radical departure from current trends in linguistics and natural language processing. Instead of making use of deep learning networks, the project focuses on the potential of ‘wide' two-layer networks with tens of thousands of input and output units.

The aim of the Research Training Group Ambiguity - Production and Perception (GRK 1808) is to show that by a collaborative approach of language-oriented disciplines new insights may be gained into the production and perception of ambiguity, i.e. when it comes into being and when it is resolved. The pursuit of this aim is based on the conviction that ambiguity is an excellent paradigm for developing new ways of collaboration between the various language-oriented disciplines

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

Demand for research into intelligent systems

Intelligent systems autonomously complete the cycle of perception, action, and learning. They are able to control their next actions on the basis, for instance, of their perception of their surroundings and from their previous experiences – and to learn from the experience of doing so. Machine Learning researchers develop algorithms which learn independently to recognize complex relationships in large data sets which are otherwise hard to analyze. There are many possible applications for this kind of intelligent technology in areas as diverse as automatic language processing, medical diagnostics, and self-driving cars. Despite groundbreaking findings in recent years, there is still a great need for further research. So far, the technology has only been applied in a limited number of areas. Researchers aim to better understand under which conditions automatically-extrapolated knowledge leads to reliable results.

In the joint project Cyber Valley, run by partners from both research institutions and industry, the researchers are actively seeking to shape the digital future by developing intelligent algorithms. The aim is to make the state of Baden-Württemberg a top location for intelligent technologies. “Cyber Valley” is intended to function as a launchpad for marketable applications anywhere in the real or virtual worlds where self-learning systems can be used.

At the Tübingen Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience researchers are examining how the brain combines sensory input and preexisting knowledge to form coherent perception. They use new experimental techniques which enable them to measure the activity of large groups of nerve cells simultaneously and very precisely. The work is expected to open up new clinical and technological applications, such as the development of robust image processing algorithms and improved neural sensory protheses.

The collaborative research center Robust Vision — Inference Principles and Neural Mechanisms (SFB 1233) is working in the area of biological and machine vision. Many mammals are able to see under widely differing conditions. They can identify objects reliably in changing light and from various perspectives. This ability, which the researchers call “robust visual interference,” requires complex calculations by nerve cells of the visual system. The aim is to better understand the fundamental workings of biological vision, and to further develop artificial vision systems according to that template.

In the regional alliance System Mensch researchers are seeking a deeper understanding of human beings as complex systems, via system-theoretical modelling. The findings are to be used in the designing of technical systems and/or the development of new human-machine interaction. By also investigating human susceptibilities to failure, the researchers are opening the door to new approaches to medical treatments.

Developments in machine learning have the potential to transform science at an equally fundamental level. The cluster of excellence Machine Learning: New Perspectives for Science aims to enable machine learning to take a central role in all aspects of scientific discovery and to understand how such a transformation will impact the scientific approach as a whole.

The International Max Planck Research School for Intelligent Systems (IMPRS-IS) brings together the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems with the University of Stuttgart and the University of Tübingen to form a highly visible and unique graduate school of internationally recognized faculty, working at the leading edge of the field. This program is a key element of Baden-Württemberg’s Cyber Valley initiative to accelerate basic research and commercial development in artificial intelligence.

The ERC project Probabilistic Automated Numerical Analysis in Machine learning and Artificial intelligence (PANAMA) aims to improve the efficiency and safety of artificial intelligence, by the addressing scientific, technological and societal challenges affecting Europeans today. It hopes to deliver a new general theory for the computations of learning.


Plant Molecular Biology

Developmental processes and defensive reactions

The Center for Plant Molecular Biology (ZMBP) brings together knowledge and skills from the departments of Biology, Chemistry and Pharmaceutics: the disciplines of Genetics, Molecular Biology, Biochemistry, Nanoscience, Cell Biology, Physiology and Developmental Biology cooperate in complex areas of plant research.

The focus here is on the investigation of basic developmental processes in plants, as well as the reaction of plants to various environmental influences such as aridity and the introduction of pathogens or parasites, and the establishment of symbioses. The plants primarily used in this research are thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana), tobacco, paprika, birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus japonicus) and maize.

Many key factors in plants have been identified in recent years which allow plants to develop and adapt to environmental factors such as pathogens or a lack of water. In the collaborative research center 1101 „Molecular Coding of Specificity in Plant Processes" scientists are investigating which mechanisms catalyze these key factors and how they work, down to the atomic level. The researchers aim to discover how plant cells set off a particular biological process.

The International Max Planck Research School "From Molecules to Organisms” is an innovative training program which provides excellent interdisciplinary training across the disciplines of structural, molecular, cellular and developmental biology as well as bioinformatics, genomics and evolutionary biology.

 The ERC project CHROMATADS: Chromatin Packing and Architectural Proteins in Plants  aims to fill a huge gap in plant functional genomics and substantially advance our understanding of three-dimensional chromatin structure. It focuses on TADS (Topologically Associating Domains), which represent the functional and structural chromatin domains demarcating the genome.

The goal of the ERC Project DeCoCt: Knowledge based design of complex synthetic microbial communities for plant protection is to dissect, design and reconstitute microbial communities from natural field data that are competitive to natural communities and capable of reverting a disease-causing community into a protective one.

Education and Media

Determinants and the mechanisms of learning processes

Researchers in this area are investigating the functionality of the German education system, including issues as varied as the role of social background in educational success and how to design better lessons. The context is interdisciplinary, incorporating cognitive, social and institutional determinants and the mechanisms of learning processes. It also focuses on technology, which is increasingly used in the classroom and demands ever-higher levels of media competency yet is a valuable tool in learning both in and out of school.

Our research employs evidence-based, practical strategies, including work on school performance and interventions, make it possible to carry out sustainable studies in cooperation with schools, institutions of higher education, and with museums and business.

Education research is essential for policymakers, academia and for society at large. Tübingen is at the forefront of this research with the Institute of Education, the Institute of Sociology and the external Knowledge Media Research Center.

The Hector Research Institute of Education Sciences and Psychology was founded in September 2014 to apply findings from Psychology, Education Science and related disciplines to research and teaching and to systematically improve education practice.

The University established the Graduate School on Learning, Educational Achievement, and Life Course Development (LEAD) as part of the Excellence Initiative. The research projects conducted here seek answers to the urgent questions raised by education and the need for lifelong learning.

The focused aim of the Leibniz-WissenschaftsCampus Tübingen  is the creation of a tightly knit strategic network to explore issues in the use of digital media in educational, organizational and informal contexts and to strengthen the academic field in this area. Our researchers are investigating how the interfaces that enable access to limitless data through digital technologies should be configured so as to best foster knowledge acquisition and exchange, understanding, decision-making and problem-solving.

Microbiology and Infection Research

Pooling knowledge from infection research

Research into infections is carried out first and foremost to find more efficient ways of fighting them. But real progress can only be made when the disciplines of Medicine, Biology, Biochemistry, Pharmaceutics and Bioinformatics work together. At the University of Tübingen, researchers in these fields cooperate within the Interfaculty Institute of Microbiology and Infection Medicine (IMIT). Tübingen is also a location of the German Center for Infection Research (DZIF).

The Research Training Group Molecular Principles of Bacterial Survival Strategies (GRK 1708) is concerned with the strategies that Bacteria use to endure unfavourable environmental conditions, thereby enabling the colonization of new habitats and hosts. One of the group's major goals is to promote a scientific spirit that exceeds narrow borders of specific disciplines.

Tübingen University's Excellence Cluster CMFI: Controlling Microbes to Fight Infection aims to find new, targeted agents which will have a positive effect on microbiomes, the colonies of potentially harmful microorganisms that live on the human body.

Enzymatically active RNA-guided proteins, like the RNA-induced silencing complex (RISC), are particularly versatile tools for the manipulation of genetic information. After successful re-addressing of various natural RNA-guided machineries, the ERC project RNArepair – Site-directed RNA editing to manipulate RNA and protein function will begin to tackle the engineering of novel, user-defined tools.

Cyanobacteria are the only prokaryotes performing oxygenic photosynthesis. They have had tremendous influence on the biogeochemical cycles on Earth. In recent years cyanobacteria have been increasingly investigated as "cell factories" for a sustainable economy.  The research unit  Autotrophy-Heterotrophy Switch in Cyanobacteria: Coherent Decision-Making at Multiple Regulatory Layer (FOR 2816) addresses the function and control of key enzymes, pathways and regulators of Cmetabolism and their interplay to unveil the hidden regulatory layers that organize the central metabolic routes within these bacteria.

Translational Immunology and Cancer Treatment

Complex research for patients

When it comes to the big questions of immunotherapy and overcoming resistance to therapy, researchers at the Interfaculty Institute for Cell Biology focus on the body’s complex immune defense mechanisms. Autoimmune diseases and cancer are different ailments with different approaches to treatment, but the basis of further progress is the acknowledgement that the human immune system can react in many different ways, depending on the individual’s genetic makeup.

For example, with multiple sclerosis and diabetes, the assumption is that in patients with a particular genetic disposition, some pathogens are similar to the body’s own structures, and when the immune system comes into contact with the pathogens, it switches on a defense program that also attacks the body. This leads to overreactions. But in the case of cancer, immune reactions must be reinforced.

One of the aims of the Comprehensive Cancer Center Tübingen–Stuttgart is to get the results of complex cancer research – into more than 200 types of cancer – out of the laboratory and into effective treatments for patients. There is also close contact in cancer research with the Tübingen location of the German Consortium for Translational Cancer Research (DKTK).

The consortium  Liver Cancer – new mechanistic and therapeutic concepts in a solid tumour model (SFB Transregio 209) investigates three areas of the mechanisms that shape liver carcinogenesis. Its goals have relevance beyond the liver cancer model, aiding in the study of other solid tumour models. The sharply increased incidence in Cholangiocarcinoma (CCC or bile duct cancer), a particularly aggressive liver tumour type for which there is currently no systemic therapy available, is addressed by the ERC project CholangioConcept: Functional in vivo analysis of cholangiocarcinoma development.

The cluster of excellence iFIT: Image-Guided and Functionally Instructed Tumor Therapies brings together different fields of cancer research, using state of the art imaging techniques to focus on the ways that tumours overcome stress within the human body.

The research unit Targeting therapeutic windows in essential cellular processes for tumor therapy (FOR 2314) aims to identify and validate novel targets for the therapy of solid tumors using a combination of genetic and small molecule-based strategies. The research unit is based on the recognition that cancer cells, in addition to mutated oncogenic driver genes, depend on a broad range of cellular processes due to the selective pressure to proliferate and survive under suboptimal growth conditions.

Geoscience and Environmental Science

Water, climate, energy – Key issues for humankind

The availability of clean water, the contamination of the environment with toxins, maintaining supplies of raw materials, global climate change – many important themes arise in the fields of Geoscience and Environmental Science. The broad spectrum of research issues meet with broad-based expertise and decades of experience at the Center for Applied Geoscience (ZAG). Specialist areas include hydrogeochemistry and -geology, environmental chemistry and physics, geomicrobiology, geophysics and sedimentology.

In the Collaborative Research Center 1253 "Catchments as Reactors: Metabolism of Pollutants on the Landscape Scale (CAMPOS)" researchers are investigating new approaches to quantifying the transportation and conversion of pollutants in rivers, ground water, and in the soil. The goal is to be able to make realistic predictions about changes in water and soil quality in changing environmental conditions.

The DFG Priority Program 1372 "Tibetan Plateau: Formation – Climate – Ecosystems" investigates the formation of the Tibetan plateau. Along with the Arctic and Antarctic, it is one of the earth’s key regions deeply affected by the anthropogenic changes to the global environment. The Geosciences also coordinate the DFG Priority Program 1803 "Earthshape". In this program, researchers investigate the interaction between biological and geomorphological processes such as erosion, taking into account tectonic processes such as mountain range formation.

On the basis of outstanding interdisciplinary networking and a willingness to tackle ever-more-complex environmental subjects, this research is brought under one roof at the Environmental and Geoscience Center (GUZ) at the University of Tübingen, located among the other scientific institutes at the University’s Morgenstelle Campus.

The focus of SFB 1070: ResourceCultures is the socio-cultural dynamics deriving from the use of resources. Its main aims are the re-conceptualization of the notion of resources in cultural studies, the identification of diachronic socio-cultural and political developments, the comprehension of the formation of identities in relation to human migrations, and a better understanding of the symbolic dimension of resources.

Sustainable management of groundwater resources under climate and land-use change requires predictive models simulating all relevant hydrological and (biogeo)chemical processes as coupled systems, explicitly accounting for feedback mechanisms. The project Integrated Hydrosystem Modelling (GRK 1829) addresses the related and as-yet unclear process descriptions.

The ongoing ERC project EXTREME: EXtreme Tectonics and Rapid Erosion in Mountain Environments proposes, for the first time, a holistic modeling and data collection approach that quantifies the temporal and spatial evolution of all aspects of tectonic plate corner evolution. EXTREME will produce a globally integrated atmospheric and solid Earth understanding of continental deformation.

The aim of the ERC project O2RIGIN: From the origin of Earth's volatiles to atmospheric oxygenation is to understand the connection between endogenic and exogenic processes of our planet that led to the redox contrast between Earth’s surface and interior.

Human Evolution and Archaeology

The cultural development of mankind

At the Tübingen Institute of Prehistory and in the research project "The Role of Culture in Early Expansions of Humans" (ROCEEH), in which the University of Tübingen is participating, the cultural development of the first hominids into human beings is paramount. The development begins more than 2.5 million years ago and goes until the late Paleolithic. Investigations take the researchers to a number of continents – because today it is assumed that all humans originated in Africa, from where they spread out in several waves to almost every part of the planet. The Tübingen Center for Archaeology (TZA) plays a major role; scientific archaeology is strongly represented here. The ROCEEH research body also works closely with the Senckenberg Nature Research Society in the Tübingen Senckenberg Centre for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment.

The focus of SFB 1070: ResourceCultures is the socio-cultural dynamics deriving from the use of resources. Its main aims are the re-conceptualization of the notion of resources in cultural studies, the identification of diachronic socio-cultural and political developments, the comprehension of the formation of identities in relation to human migrations, and a better understanding of the symbolic dimension of resources.

The ERC project CROSSROADS: Human Evolution at the Crossroads concentrates on the earlier parts of the Paleolithic and aims to address hypotheses about the earliest human settlement of Europe and the evolution and adaptations of early European hominins. This interdisciplinary large scale project will be a milestone in the paleoanthropology of the Balkans and will accomplish the contextualization of its fossil and Paleolithic record.

STONECULT: Do early stone tools indicate a hominin ability to accumulate culture? (ERC grant) will evaluate whether early stone tools were more similar to modern ape or modern human technologies. The outcomes and conclusions of STONECULT will therefore inform several fields at once (e.g. anthropology, archaeology, comparative psychology, ethology and primatology).

PALAEOSILKROAD: A Silk Road in the Palaeolithic: Reconstructing Late Pleistocene Hominin Dispersals and Adaptations in Central Asia (ERC grant) is a multi-disciplinary archaeological project aiming to discover Paleolithic sites in the Inner Asian Mountain Corridor and test the hypothesis that Pleistocene dispersals correlated with climatic pulses during the last Glacial Cycle (ca. 110 000 - 15 000 years ago).

The University’s spectrum of research includes further profile areas, a number of collaborative research centers, Transregio collaborative research centers and research groups backed by the German Research Foundation (DFG).

The University plays a crucial role in the training of young researchers in DFG research training groups, as well as in the University’s own doctoral training groups with an interdisciplinary focus. These groups are incorporated into the Graduate Academy, set up to attract graduates both from within Germany and abroad.

Overview on research at the University

The brochure "Committed to the Future" provides an overview of the spectrum of research carried out in Tübingen – from institutions and research infrastructure to third-pary projects to collaboration with non-university partners. Download of the revised edition 2021