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 excellence cluster of 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.

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.

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.


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.

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 Science 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.

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).

A key starting-point for combating bacterial infection is the bacteria’s cell envelope. That is the focus of the collaborative research center "The Bacterial Cell Envelope: Structure, Function and Infection Interface". A second area of investigation in this collaborative research center is the interaction between disease-causing bacteria and their host cells in humans, mice and plants.

In the collaborative research center (Transregio) Pathophysiology of Staphylococci in the Post-Genome Era the spotlight is on a bacterium called Staphylococcus aureus, which can cause a number of serious infections such as blood poisoning, wound infections, pneumonia and endocarditis.

Tübingen is also a location of the German Center for Infection Research (DZIF).

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 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 Helmholtz Association’s German Consortium for Translational Cancer Research (DKTK).

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 Geosciences (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.

Archaeology and Anthropology

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 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.