CRC 1349 ’Fluorine-Specific Interactions’ Gets the Go-Ahead

German Research Foundation to fund Collaborative Research Center 1349 at Freie Universität Berlin for four more years

Since 2019 Collaborative Research Center (CRC) 1349 "Fluorine-Specific Interactions" has been working on understanding and controlling the complex interactions that can emanate from fluorinated units in molecules and materials. The German Research Foundation (DFG) recently decided to continue funding CRC 1349 for another four years from January 1, 2023. Chemistry professors Sebastian Hasenstab-Riedel from Freie Universität Berlin and Thomas Braun from Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin are spokesperson and deputy spokesperson of CRC 1349, respectively. Subprojects with members from Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Technische Universität Berlin, the Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing, and the Leibniz-Forschungsinstitut für Molekulare Pharmakologie (FMP) are participating in the research.

Fluorinated units in molecules and materials have played a significant role in our everyday lives for quite some time now. Fluorides are added to toothpaste to strengthen our dental enamel, fluorinated liquid crystals are used in modern cell phone and computer displays, and fluorinated compounds are introduced to pharmaceuticals to increase their efficacy and reduce side effects. The special properties that these fluorinated systems produce in applied contexts are based on unique interactions emanating from fluorinated units in these compounds, which are otherwise known as Fluorine-Specific interactions. Fluorinated compounds have increasingly come under fire over the last few years because they accumulate in the environment and their impact on organisms has not yet been conclusively investigated. That is why the members of CRC 1349 are not only proceeding with their research on Fluorine-Specific interactions and how they can be utilized in new applications in the upcoming funding period; they also want to develop better methods for detecting fluorinated compounds in the environment and making them more easily degradable.

By addressing environmental issues related to fluorochemicals, the CRC is staying abreast of relevant concerns that have come up over the last few years. "It is crucial that we find a way of handling fluorinated chemicals responsibly," says Professor Hasenstab-Riedel, CRC spokesperson and professor of inorganic chemistry at the Department of Biology, Chemistry, Pharmacy at Freie Universität Berlin. "Fluorinated compounds are irreplaceable in many areas, but in others we may be able to reduce them or find an appropriate substitute. This is also important because fluorine is a finite resource that we have to use sustainably. Cooperation between different disciplines within not only chemistry but also physics, pharmacy, and geology has been essential to the CRC’s success. That’s why we’re delighted we have been able to get so many of our colleagues from all of these different fields of research on board as well as further boost Berlin’s reputation as a global hub for research on fluorochemicals."

The first funding period of the CRC was remarkably successful, as the over one hundred scientific publications produced by the CRC’s research projects can attest. While the CRC’s focus lies on basic research, some groups have been working on very specific questions. New findings related to degenerative neurological diseases could be taken from a study on the influence of fluorinated compounds on the folding of protein fragments. Theoretical and experimental studies on the Simons process will finally make it possible to explain the mechanism behind this industrial fluoridation process. Not only that, but work being carried out on the impact of fluorinated units on surface hydrophobicity could make an important contribution to developing new artificial heart valves that would repel bacteria that would otherwise cause infections.

The CRC is also dedicated to imparting knowledge of fluorochemicals to doctoral candidates with an Integrated Research Training Group: "Our goal is to support each doctoral candidate individually and prepare them for a career in academia, industry, or another sector of their choice," says Professor Beate Paulus, spokesperson of the Integrated Research Training Group within CRC 1349 and academic director of the Dahlem Research School (DRS) at Freie Universität Berlin. Over forty doctoral candidates and early-career researchers are currently participating in the CRC. Thirteen doctoral candidates have since successfully completed their dissertations and are now putting their knowledge and experience to good use.

CRC 1349 is one of thirteen Collaborative Research Centers funded by the German Research Foundation. The Grants Committee also approved thirteen new Collaborative Research Centers that will be set up in the next four years, and which will receive about 166 million euros in total. The DFG has stated that it will be funding 279 alliances from July 2023.