Successful network research is extended

Sleep, religious conflicts and the health of the environment, plants, humans and animals: these are the topics of the three Interfaculty Research Cooperations at the University of Bern. The innovative network projects, which started in 2018, were very successful and will therefore be extended for two years.

With the launch of three Interfaculty Research Cooperations (IRC) in 2018, the University of Bern broke new ground in research promotion: The IRCs are network projects, each of which brings together 8 to 13 research groups from various faculties, are oriented towards the University of Bern's five priority topics. In a competitive process, the three projects "One Health", "Religious Conflicts and Coping Strategies" and "Decoding Sleep" were selected for funding of CHF 1.5 million each per year.

Impressive performance record

"All three projects have produced high-quality scientific work in the last two years," says Daniel Candinas, Vice Rector for Research at the University of Bern. Therefore, the Executive Board of the University of Bern has decided to extend all three IRCs for another two years. "The IRC's impressive track record confirms our decision to specifically promote interdisciplinary research. Complex, current problem areas can only be tackled in an interdisciplinary manner," says Candinas. The IRC's funding by the University of Bern is limited to a total of four years.

"One Health": the health of the environment, humans and animals in focus

Within a short period of time, the IRC "One Health" has established a new, unique interdisciplinary research network to investigate the impact of various environmental chemicals on the health of food chains and their microbial communities. Various research successes have already been recorded. "For example, we were recently able to show for the first time in detail how agricultural practice affects pesticide pollution in seabed ecosystems in the long term," says Matthias Erb, Director of the IRC "One Health". In addition, the IRC was also very active in teaching (e.g. with the Summer School "Hidden Players in the Food Chain"), promoting young scientists and raising third-party funds.

"In the long term, our efforts should, for example, contribute to pesticide-free, sustainable agriculture. The first two years have shown the great potential and enormous benefits of this interfaculty network. We want to build on this," says Matthias Erb.

The interdisciplinary "One Health" approach is also gaining ground internationally. Every year on November 3, for example, researchers around the world mark the "One Health Day" to draw attention to the great importance of interdisciplinary research to maintain and promote the health of the environment, humans and animals - this year this topic is more relevant than ever.

"Religious Conflicts and Coping Strategies": Model for the Analysis of Religious Conflicts

Since the start of the project, the IRC "Religious Conflicts and Coping Strategies" has developed a model for the analysis of conflicts with religious dimensions, involving all disciplines involved. "The model can be applied in science as well as in politics, in religious communities, in international peace work. Media professionals can also use the model to achieve a differentiated presentation of conflicts with religious dimensions in their reporting," explains IRC Director Katharina Heyden.

Since 2018, the members of the IRC have published or submitted for publication a total of 83 scientific papers and organized numerous scientific conferences and workshops. In addition, an interactive educational video on the IRC's topic was also published this year. There are also plans for the future in research and teaching: "2021 will see, among other things, a doctoral school, a conference in cooperation with the platform, and of course our own annual conference under the title Gender Religion Conflicts," says Heyden.

"Decoding Sleep": What constitutes healthy sleep

The IRC "Decoding Sleep" has used the last two years to reorient sleep research on a local level, involving various disciplines, and to link it internationally. Among the numerous research successes from the Bernese consortium, recent reports which highlighted that people can learn new vocabulary of a foreign language during deep sleep and that in animal models, recovery after a stroke can be promoted by influencing sleep, gained a lot of media attention. In addition, the IRC is strongly committed to supporting researchers` at all academic career stages. "In the future, we would like to give the IRC an even stronger international orientation and establish the University of Bern among the world's leading centers of interdisciplinary sleep research," says Claudio Bassetti, head of the IRC "Decoding Sleep".

Sleep-wake disturbances can be the first signs of diseases - such as Parkinson's, dementia or depression. "We contribute to a deeper understanding of what constitutes healthy sleep and how physical, psychological and mental well-being, performance and quality of life can be improved as a result. Not only patients but also the general public should be able to benefit from the findings of our research," says Bassetti.

Detailed information on the three IRCs:

IRC "One Health: Cascading and Microbiome-Dependent Effects on Multitrophic Health"

Managed by: Prof. Dr. Matthias Erb, Biotic Interactions Group, Institute of Plant Sciences, University of Bern
Co-managed by: Prof. Dr. Andrew Macpherson, Department for BioMedical Research, Gastroenterology / Mucosal Immunology group, University of Bern
Participating faculties: Science, Medicine and Vetsuisse Faculty.
Participating groups: 9 research groups with expertise in microbiology, environmental sciences, plant and animal health, human medicine and bioinformatics.

From soil to plants and ruminants to humans

The project "One Health: Cascading and Microbiome-Dependent Effects on Multitrophic Health" deals with an increasingly important area of research, in which interactions between the health of the environment, animals and humans are investigated. The 9 research groups are investigating in particular the influence of environmental changes on food chain systems – from soil to plants to ruminants and finally mice as a model organism for human health. For example, for the first time it is possible to carry out comparative analyses of how microbial communities react at various interfaces along the food chain to factors such as heavy metals, pesticides and vegetable secondary materials, and what influence these changes have on the health of the individual links along the food chain and the whole system. By combining their specialist expertise the research groups can observe health-related cascade effects within the food chain, which would otherwise not be possible for them. This constitutes a new approach in the One Health research area. The researchers expect that the gained knowledge will contribute to the understanding and remedying of pesticides in food chains.

IRC "Religious Conflicts and Coping Strategies"

Managed by: Prof. Dr. Katharina Heyden, Institute for Historical Theology, University of Bern
Co-managed by: Prof. Dr. Martino Mona, Institute for Penal Law and Criminology, University of Bern
Participating faculties: Faculty of Theology, Faculty of Law, Faculty of Human Sciences, Faculty of Business, Economics and Social Sciences, Faculty of Humanities and the Interdisciplinary Centre for Gender Studies (IZFG).
Participating groups: 12 interdisciplinary research groups from theology, law, science of religion, Islamic studies, Jewish studies, political science, history, sociology, psychology, media and communication studies, literature and philosophy.

Religious Conflicts and Coping Strategies

Despite the fact that conflicts with religious dimensions shape the past and the present, the significance of religion in social and political conflicts so far has not been conclusively identified or explained. Debate has focused especially on the issue of whether religions are simply exploited for other, perhaps economic interests or whether they themselves contain conflict-promoting or peace-building components. The research cooperation strives for a context-sensitive understanding of the ambivalent role of religions in conflicts to be able to develop suitable coping strategies. The main objective of the project is to create analytical models which examine the different economic, social, psychological, cultural and political factors that contribute to conflicts, describing their relation to religious beliefs, religious rhetoric, religious motivations and actors. For this purpose, the 12 groups are researching past and current religious conflicts and coping strategies. They are thus linking historical, cultural as well as social science methods with internal religious perspectives. The content and the methodology of this IFK should make a significant contribution to two strategic areas of focus of the University of Bern: intercultural knowledge and sustainability.

IRC "Decoding Sleep: From Neurons to Health & Mind"

Managed by: Prof. Dr. med. Claudio Bassetti, Chairman and Physician-in-Chief, Department of Neurology at Inselspital, Bern University Hospital as well as Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, University of Bern.
Co-managed by: Prof. Dr. Fred Mast, Head of Cognitive Psychology, Perception and Research Methods, Department of Psychology, University of Bern.
Participating faculties: Medicine, Human Sciences and Science Faculty.
Participating groups: 13 research groups from neurology, psychology, physiology, psychiatry and psychotherapy, pneumology, infectiology and informatics.

Decoding sleep: Its significance for health and quality of life

Sleep has remained almost unchanged in the course of evolution, which indicates its fundamental importance for survival. Sleep research in humans and animals suggests that the body uses sleep to save energy and for recovery and repair processes in the brain and in various organs. In mechanisms connected to sleep, it has also been proven that these promote the capacity of the brain to regenerate and restructure itself, as well as brain maturation and cognition. The research cooperation wishes to achieve a better understanding of the mechanisms of sleep, consciousness and cognition with the three areas of "Brain – Mind – Body". Finally, sleep-wake disorders could be the first signs of illnesses such as Parkison’s and dementia or depression. For this purpose, molecular and neurophysiological processes of sleep and sleep disorders and their link to brain damage, pain and infections is examined. In addition to this, with the aid of sleep, new insights should be gained into cognitive and neuroplastic processes. In this way, the importance of sleep for mental health, brain functions and physical performance in healthy and sick conditions are examined in animals and humans. New model calculations of sleep phases should be developed from the "big data" of individual project groups - with the aim of identifying new biomarkers for sleep and sleep disorders. For this, the IRC can rely on the nationally operating "Bern Network for Epilepsy, Sleep and Consciousness (BENESCO)", internationally established networks and highly specialised infrastructures such as the "Sleep-Wake Epilepsy Center Bern", the "Center for Experimental Neurology" or the "Swiss Institute for Translational and Entrepreneurial Medicine (sitem-insel AG)". Thanks to its focus on personalised medicine and biomedical technology, it contributes to the reinforcement of Bern as a medical center.