A quest “to understand the basis of life”
Professor Musacchio, you grew up in Rome, lived for a time in the United States and several years in Milan. What led you as a native Italian to a research institute in Dortmund?
Musacchio: To be honest, when I was invited several years ago to take a look at the institute and to consider whether I would like to work here and do research, I was rather skeptical. Of course, I knew that really good people were here like Roger Goody and Alfred Wittinghofer, who had published outstanding work in the field of cancer as well as in other fields. I also knew that the Max Planck Society offers scientists excellent working conditions. Initially though, I was not very enthusiastic about the idea of moving here with my family.
Mainly because I did not know the city or the institute at all. Dortmund doesn’t happen to be the center of the world. Everyone talks about Berlin or New York. But Dortmund, Essen or Bochum – I didn’t have much of an idea what they were like.
What changed your mind?
This may sound a little dramatic, but it’s true: When I visited the institute for the first time, I was really astonished. What I saw here surpassed all my expectations – both the facilities with the state-of-the art equipment and the immense technical and chemical expertise that exist here. Suddenly I realized that the opportunities I would have here to advance my research were absolutely superb. And you know, even today I feel it is advantageous that this institution is not located in one of the above-mentioned cities.
What do you mean by that?
My family and I quickly realized that we could have a good quality of life here. Dortmund is amazingly green and offers a huge range of sports and cultural activities. And the people who live here are tremendously open, warm and helpful. That made it easy for us to adjust and feel comfortable here. What’s more, the Max Planck Institute in Dortmund attracts a certain type of researchers – people with whom it is a lot of fun to work together.
How would you describe this type of researcher?
The people who come to us are really interested in the research they can do here. They are not following a trend or going to a city that is considered “in”, but instead have a burning interest in science; they want to conduct in-depth research. And they look carefully where they can find the best conditions for their development as researchers.
What drives you personally as a scientist? Did you always have a predilection for cell biology and cancer research?
No, I came to this via detours. As a student in school I wanted to be a writer or a historian. In fact, during my first three years at university I didn’t study biology or medicine, but rather literature, philosophy and philology.
And what caused you to embark on a different path?
One day I read a book by the Italian poet and philosopher Giacomo Leopardi, who was very influential in the 19th century. The book had a deep impact on me and to a certain extent also determined the future course of my life.
What was this book about?
Leopardi was an existentialist who dealt with very fundamental questions of nature and our existence, such as: What is life? Why are we here? Is it worth it to have lived? And if yes: why? It is very exciting to philosophize about this. But I eventually realized that for me it was not enough to think about these questions and to discuss them. By means of the natural sciences I wanted to understand the basis of life. That’s what brought me to biology.
And today you are a cancer researcher. Many people associate this with the hope that scientists like you will find therapies for tumors that are presently considered to be incurable.
Of course it would be wonderful if we could contribute to treating cancer more successfully in the future. But the focus of our work is on basic research. That is, we want to find out how cancer develops and how we can prevent tumors from growing or spreading in the body. But first and foremost, we want to gain insights into the principles of how cells divide and proliferate. Therefore, our view of a phenomenon like cancer is significantly different from the perspective of a physician.
In what way?
Our primary focus is not on a specific application. Quite generally, we seek to elucidate the rules of how life functions within a cell. When and how it divides and proliferates, why this process can get out of control and how it can be influenced. That is why we are investigating the mechanisms underlying these processes. What is special about this institute is that we can do this in a holistic way. Due to the close connection between chemistry and biology we cover a broad spectrum of methods. We can explore the dynamics and behavior of cells on all levels and in all dimensions – including small chemical molecules that are just one tenth of a nanometer in size, large protein complexes as well as whole cells with a dimension of several micrometers.