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Prof. Kurt Mehlhorn, the founding director of the Max Planck Institute for Informatics, initiated the first activities in the area of bioinformatics in Saarland. In 1981, he suggested to his PhD student Hans-Peter Lenhof, to look for an exciting topic at the interface between informatics, chemistry and biology. This suggestion led to the first dissertation on a topic in bioinformatics at Saarland University (UdS), finished in 1993. This was followed by the first courses in bioinformatics and, at the end of the 90s, to the establishment of a junior research group in this field at the Max Planck Institute for Informatics.

Knut Reinert was the first PhD student in this group. Subsequent to his graduation, he became a member of the department of Eugene Myers at Celera Genomics in Bethesda, Maryland. There he made essential contributions to the development of the innovative pipeline for genome assembly which led to the first draft of the human genome.

The founding of the Center for Bioinformatics Saar (CBI) in 2001 was the result of the acceptance of the concept for a “Virtual Biolab”, which was submitted to the DFG and accepted together with four other concepts among a set of 31 concepts from throughout Germany. The following 15 research groups participated in this proposal:

  • Prof. Rita Bernhart Biochemistry, UdS
  • Prof. Friedrich Giffhorn Applied Microbiology, UdS
  • Prof. Rolf Hartmann Pharmaceutical and Medicinal Chemistry, UdS
  • Prof. Elmar Heinzle Technical Biochemistry, UdS
  • Prof. Jürgen Hüttermann Biophysics, UdS
  • Prof. Joachim José Pharmaceutical and Medicinal Chemistry, UdS
  • Prof. Claus-Michael Lehr Biopharmaceutics and Pharmaceutical Technology, UdS
  • PD Dr. Hans-Peter Lenhof, Bioinformatikgruppe der AG1 des MPII 
  • Prof. Dr. Alfred Louis, Angewandte Mathematik, UdS
  • Prof. Dr. Kurt Mehlhorn,  AG1: Algorithmen und Komplexität, MPII
  • Prof. Dr. Eckart Meese, Humangenetik, UdS 
  • Prof. Dr. Hans-Peter Seidel,  AG4: Computergraphik, MPII 
  • Prof. Dr. Raimund Seidel, Informatik, UdS
  • Prof. Dr. Michael Springborg, Physikalische Chemie, UdS 
  • Prof. Dr. Gerhard Weikum, Datenbanken, UdS
  • Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Wahlster, Künstliche Intelligenz, DFKI & UdS

In the years following, the Center was funded by the DFG with about €6.2 million. The success with the DFG initiative had very positive effects on the development of the life sciences and, especially, of pharmaceutics on the Saarbrücken campus.

Roughly simultaneously with the founding of the Center, the first research department directed by a full professor for bioinformatics (Hans-Peter Lenhof) was founded at UdS in 2000, and the executive office of the Center was installed under the direction of Mrs. Pia Scherer-Geiss. Furthermore, three curricula for bioinformatics were conceptualized and initiated the following year. Those were also the first bachelor's and master's curricula at Saarland University.

A milestone in the development of the CBI was the establishment of a Computational Biology Department at the Max Planck Institute for Informatics (MPII) in 2001. Owing to joint efforts of the Max Planck Society, the MPII, Saarland University, and the Saarland government, Prof. Thomas Lengauer, one of the founding fathers of bioinformatics at the national and international level, was attracted to the MPII. This raised the international visibility of the CBI substantially. Initially, the research focus of the CBI was the development of bioinformatical methods for pharmaceutics or, more specifically, for drug design. The new research group around Prof. Lengauer added to the CBI spectrum a new area of focus, namely bioinformatical methods and software for biomedical problems, especially for therapy optimization (individualized medicine). Since 2001, Prof. Lengauer has had the role of Scientific Director of the Center.

In 2002, the CBI hosted the first European Bioinformatics Conference (ECCB) with 450 delegates in Saarbrücken. This was the inaugural edition of a new annual conference series in the field, which has since become one of the most important bioinformatics conferences worldwide.

The next important step was winning professor Volkhard Helms for Saarland University on a full professorship for computational biology in Faculty 8 (chemistry, pharmaceutics, life and material sciences) in the year 2003. Shortly thereafter, Prof. Helms became the Center's Dean of Studies of the center. He has since dedicated himself with great engagement to maturing and extending the bioinformatics curricula of the Center.

Thus, he has organized and directed the accreditation of the bioinformatics curricula. In 2005, the bioinformatics bachelor's and master's curricula, together with the informatics' and computational linguistics' curricula, were the first ones to be accredited at Saarland University in the context of the Bologna Process. The Helms work group applies methods of molecular modeling in order to decipher the principles of biomolecular interactions. In addition, it performs research on regulatory mechanisms and cellular networks.

In the final evaluation by an international review committee in 2007 at the end of the DFG program dedicated to bioinformatics, the CBI was rated top in research strength among the five funded centers.

Another milestone in the history of the CBI was the completion of a new building especially dedicated to the Center and the move into this building in 2009. The new light-flooded rooms with modern technical equipment provide a highly inspiring ambience for research and learning. Thus, the building is also popular among external groups for events of all kinds.

Since its foundation, the Center for Bioinformatics forms a bridge between the scientifically outstanding Saarbrücken informatics and the life sciences at Saarland University. The Lengauer department and the Lenhof group belong to Faculty 6 (mathematics/informatics). The Helms group belongs to Faculty 8 (chemistry, pharmaceutics, life and material sciences). In 2013, another bioinformatics group with a focus on clinical bioinformatics directed by a full professor was established in Faculty 2 (medicine). This department, directed by Prof. Andreas Keller has enriched CBI with expertise and international visibility in the highly up-to-date research field of “microRNA”, especially on the topic “microRNAs as molecular biomarkers for new effective diagnostics”.

Junior research groups play a major role in the life of the CBI. Since the beginning, junior research groups at the CBI have been directed by Oliver Kohlbacher, Andreas Hildebrandt, Rainer Böckmann, Dirk Neumann, Mario Albrecht, Alice McHardy, Jan Baumbach, Marcel Schulz, Nico Pfeifer, and Olga Kalinina. These groups have made essential contributions to research as well as to teaching. We are especially grateful to Oliver Kohlbacher and Andreas Hildebrandt who have also contributed substantially to the construction of the bioinformatics-IT-infrastructure of the Center. Furthermore, Dirk Neumann and two other graduates of the Center founded the first spin off (Scientific Consilience GmbH) of the Center in 2010.

Five junior scientists have obtained and accepted offers as bioinformatics professors at German and international universities. More generally, the success in research and teaching is also reflected by the fact that the CBI has brought forth the substantial number of 16 professors in a relatively short time. Thus, through its graduates, the Center has contributed markedly to today’s scientific leadership in the field of bioinformatics at German and international universities.

In 2014, the CBI managed to attract Tobias Marschall against strong competition from several other universities to become the first junior professor of bioinformatics at the Saarbrücken location.

The Center and its research groups are involved in many excellence and model projects at Saarland University, among them the Excellence Cluster “Multimodal Computing and Interaction” (MMCI) and the Graduate School for Computer Science of the German Excellence Initiative, the DFG Collaborative Research Cluster 1027 “Physical Modeling of Non-Steady-State Processes in Biological Systems”, the EU-projects P-Medicine and BLUEPRINT as well as the German Epigenome Program DEEP funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).