Biological data streaming

Physicist Mantas Gabrielaitis from the Max Planck Institute of Dynamics and Self-Organization receives Otto-Hahn-Medal of the Max Planck Society

June 21, 2017

Mantas Gabrielaitis receives the Otto Hahn Medal of the Max Planck society for his doctoral dissertation at the Max Planck Institute of Dynamics and Self-Organization (MPIDS) and the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience (BCCN). The medal was awarded today, at the 68th Annual Meeting of the Max Planck Society in Weimar for “his groundbreaking analysis of information encoding by single ion channels in the inner ear and of its extraordinary energy efficiency”. Gabrielaitis prepared his dissertation in the group of Professor Fred Wolf.

Highly efficient data transmission through single ion channels in the inner ear

Information about the world of sounds enters our brains through auditory nerve fibers, each activated by release of tiny packages of neurotransmitter at separate synapses of sensory hair cells in the inner ear. This process is orchestrated by a biomolecular machinery which, due to its minute size, is highly sensitive to the smallest changes in the environment, and thus, intrinsically noisy. In fact, evidence accumulating over the past decade has suggested that single presynaptic calcium ion channels, i.e., individual protein molecules, control information transmission to each of the auditory nerve fibers. These findings seemingly clash with a well-established fact that, among all human senses, hearing is unique in its ultra-high temporal precision, important to a proper hearing function. How is this possible?

During his doctoral studies, Mantas Gabrielaitis developed a mathematical framework to model and understand the response characteristics of sensory hair cell synapses starting from the physical properties of their basic molecular constituents. His theoretical analyses revealed that, with an appropriate choice of physical parameters found by evolution, the deteriorating effect of noise imposed by the tiny size of the synapse is minimized. Consequently, this allows the design which grants a decision making role to separate calcium channels to reach the maximum rate of information flow possible among all feasible synaptic organizations. Due to the small number of molecules involved, however, such an option minimizes energetic expenses, explaining its evolutionary advantage over other possible options. Altogether, these results set directions for new investigations of the molecular basis of the astonishing performance of sensory hair cell synapses. In the future, they may guide scientists in identifying the mechanisms of malfunction of these synapses in pathological conditions and creating cures capable of restoring or improving the hearing function.

Otto Hahn Medal: Since 1978, the Max Planck Society has been awarding the Otto Hahn Medal to young scientists for their outstanding research during their graduate training. The award is endowed with prize money of 7500 Euro and intends to motivate particularly talented young scientists to pursue a career in academia.

Mantas Gabrielaitis studied biophysics and theoretical physics at Vilnius University, Lithuania. He joined the Theoretical Neurophysics group led by Prof. Fred Wolf at Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization to conduct research for his doctoral dissertation in 2011. He works as a postdoctoral researcher there since 2016.

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