The physical integrity of every living organism is at constant risk of being attacked by microorganisms of its environment or pathologically transformed cells of its own body. The main function of the cells, molecules and mechanisms that we refer to as the ‘immune system’ is to maintain the individual integrity of our body against these threats. In this context, the innate branch of the immune system serves as the first line of defense that has the intricate task to detect molecules and organisms that are of danger to the organism. Apart from executing immediate antimicrobial effector functions at the cellular and systemic level (e.g. inflammation), the innate immune system also plays a fundamental role in orchestrating adaptive immune responses.
In our research projects, we are trying to understand what mechanisms are employed by the innate immune system to distinguish self from non-self or harmless from dangerous, respectively. Central to this complex task is a repertoire of pattern recognition receptors (PRRs) that have evolved to detect the presence of microorganisms. The ligands or targets of these PRRs are commonly referred to as microbe-associated molecular patterns (MAMPs). At the same time, some PRRs can also be triggered by endogenous substances that are formed or released during cell stress, perturbation of tissue homeostasis or metabolic imbalance. In analogy to the MAMP terminology, these signals are commonly referred to as damage associated molecular patterns (DAMPs). Most of our research efforts focus on the interplay of the PRR system with its ligands. To this effect, (i) we are trying to decipher relevant MAMP or DAMP molecules during infection or sterile inflammation, (ii) we aim at the identification of novel PRRs, signaling cascades and their functional roles, and (iii) we develop strategies to manipulate this interface for therapeutic application.