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Information für die Wissenschaft Nr. 46 | 20. Mai 2021
Priority Programme “Emergent Functions of Bacterial Multicellularity” (SPP 2389)

In spring 2021, the Senate of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) established the Priority Programme “Emergent Functions of Bacterial Multicellularity” (SPP 2389). The programme is designed to run for six years. The present call invites proposals for the first three-year funding period.

Differentiated, transiently stable bacterial consortia are widely distributed, and exhibit astounding multicellular traits that go way beyond what their unicellular state could explain, including (i) the tissue-like biophysical properties of biofilms and colonies, (ii) the ways in which bacterial cells are connected with each other to exchange, communicate, synchronise, and coordinate their efforts, and (iii) multicellular traits and behaviours that cannot occur in planktonic cells, such as programmed cell death, spatial signalling, and spatial metabolism. Identifying and characterising these emergent multicellular functions are the centre around which this Priority Programme revolves. The programme will focus on two central aspects:

  • the physiological benefits and molecular mechanisms of the emergent functions as the driving forces of bacterial multicellularity;
  • the architecture, dynamics and biophysical properties of the multicellular forms as the structural framework from which a multicellular function can emerge.

“Form” and “Function” are tightly interwoven aspects of bacterial multicellularity, which show an intricate interdependence, as they are both a precondition for, as well as a consequence of each other. Unraveling these interdependencies and identifying general principles of bacterial multicellularity requires a novel approach by investigating a wide range of phylogenetically diverse bacterial species by a combination of highly resolving experimental methodologies (such as time-resolved 3D live cell imaging, imaging mass spectroscopy, multi-parameter flow cytometry) in concert with modern data analysis and conceptual theory and modelling. These innovative approaches in combination with expertise from microbiology, genetics, molecular biology, biophysics, and mathematics will generate the required multi-lateral synergies and mutual enrichment that will put the members of this initiative in a position to dissect and study functions and forms of bacterial multicellularity with single-cell resolution within the 1D to 3D confinements of bacterial filaments and microbial tissues.

Based on the above, suitable projects are characterised by the combination of three aspects that will often necessitate collaborative efforts and include (i) investigating a biological trait that is truly and exclusively multicellular, (ii) focusing either on the multicellular form, that is, molecular/mechanistic aspects of bacterial tissues and filaments, or (iii) focusing on the emergent multicellular function, to understand the fitness gain and purpose in light of the extra energy cost that maintaining the differentiated multicellular state requires. Single cell analyses by multidimensional approaches are desirable to allow modelling correlations and interactions by high dimensional regression/statistics, network analyses, or individual-based modelling. Collaborative (tandem) proposals with two principal investigators are highly encouraged to tightly interlink a multicellular behaviour with technology development and/or modelling of the resulting high-dimensional data. To promote interdisciplinary collaborations and ensure conceptual coherence of this programme, projects need to meet all of the following criteria:

  • A focus on spatially structured bacterial communities, with a goal to understand community dynamics, intercellular interactions and environmental impact.
  • A focus on multicellular functions that are beneficial for the communal life style. These functions need to be known at the beginning of the project.
  • Projects need to aim at a molecular understanding of multicellular traits. The underlying hypotheses derive from mechanistic, physiological, ecological, or evolutionary questions.
  • The microorganisms need to be genetically tractable (exception: technology-driven projects).

Technology-/theory-driven projects qualify, if the above applies (ideally in tandem projects with experimental collaborators). Projects that (i) are purely descriptive, (ii) emphasise the eukaryotic host (e.g. in the medical context), or (iii) are in the context of communal phenotypic heterogeneity, but lack an experimentally described emergent multicellular function do not qualify.

Proposals must be submitted in English via the DFG’s electronic submission system “elan” selecting “SPP 2389/1 – Bacterial Multicellularity” from the current list of calls. Applicants must be registered in elan prior to submitting a proposal to the DFG. If you are using the elan system for the first time, please note that you need to register yourself and your institutional addresses before being able to submit a proposal. Also, if you are planning to move to a different institution (e.g. with a temporary position for principal investigators) you need to register the new institutional address beforehand. Please make sure that all applicants of your project (in case there is more than one) have registered by 17 November 2021, two weeks before the submission deadline. The registration requests are handled manually by DFG staff within two working days. Note that you will be asked to select the appropriate Priority Programme call during both the registration and the proposal process.

Potential applicants are kindly asked to send a summary of the intended project (applicant(s), preliminary title, plus a maximum of 15 lines of text) no later than 1 September 2021 by e-mail to the coordinator (contact see below). To allow for mutual information and coordination among applicants, these short summaries will be compiled and made available to all applicants by the coordinator.

Proposals must be submitted by 1 December 2021 at the latest.

lt is planned to evaluate all proposals by a review panel in March 2022. All applicants will be informed in due course.

The envisaged start of funding is late summer 2022.

Further Information

The elan system can be accessed at:

Proposal guidelines, preparation instructions, the DFG rules for publication lists and the current project description for your proposal are outlined in the DFG forms 50.05, 54.01, 1.91 and 53.01, which can be found either in elan or on the DFG’s website at:

For scientific enquiries please contact the Priority Programme coordinator:

Questions on the DFG proposal process can be directed to:

Programme contact:

Administrative contact:


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