What we do

Welcome in the Nick-Lab

Molecular Cell Biology (Prof. Dr. Peter Nick)

Fritz-Haber-Weg, Gbd. 30.43 (Biology Tower), 5. floor. e-mail. How to find us

Interview in Biospektrum

Living is Searching (Springer-Nature 2023)





the journal with the longest tradition in cell biology (Springer-Nature). We publish it. more...


Honorary Colloquium for Hartmut Lichtenthaler

Im Rahmen des Biologischen Kolloquiums. 8. Juli 2024, 17:30 Criegee HS

Prof. em. Dr. Birgit Piechulla: “A new terpene biosynthesis route in bacteria” Universität Rostock, Institut für Biowissenschaften

Honorary address by Prof. em. Dr. Thomas Bach, Université Strasbourg

Hartmut Lichtenthaler, born in 1934 in Weinheim, belongs to the leading figures in German plant physiology, known for his contributions to photosynthesis research and terpenoid metabolism. After studying botany and pharmaceutical sciences in Karlsruhe, he got his PhD degree 1961 in Heidelberg. His scientific path led him over Grenoble, the lab of Noble laureate Melvin Calvin in Berkeley, and the University of Münster back to Karlsruhe, where he became full professor in 1970 and was a central figure in the shaping of our faculty.

Birgit Piechulla, born in 1956 in Neumünster, is Honorary Member of the German Botanical Society and known for her work on the biochemistry of volatile terpenoids in bacteria and plants.


Who is the "true" Moringa?

"Superfood" is a huge market, often with growth rates in the tens of percent. A wealthy, but ageing society with a pronounced awareness for health is willing to pay high prices for these mostly exotic plant products. Many of these plants are medicinally used in their region of origin - a cultural context that has developed over a long time, ensures that they do not bring harm, but benefit. Globalisation has separated those plants from this context. This leads to misunderstandings, confusion, but also intentional adulteration. Since these plants do not have a tradition of use in our cultures, also our authorities fail to cope. Since many years, we have been using carefully verified reference plants and so-called genetic barcodes to develop methods able to authenticate such products. Currently we focus on Moringa  - Reason: this medicinal plant is rooted in the Indian Ayurveda, but has related species in Africa. The prices paid for Moringa in Europe are of astronomic level in the perspective of an African smallholder. Therefore, more and more farmers begin to cultivate Moringa - of course African species of Moringa. The effect of this medicinal plant, which is also known under the name Horseradish Tree, depends on active compounds, the glucosinolates. The profile of these compounds differs considerably between species, the line between healing and harming is very thin. We have now developed a PCR-based method to distinguish "true" Moringa rapidly and reliably from such surrogates. We hope that this contribution to consumer safety will soon be adopted by the authorities in charge of food safety.

208. Wetters S, Sahi V, Brosche L, Häser, A, Nick P (2024) Monitoring Indian “Superfood” Moringa oleifera Lam. – species-specific PCR-fingerprint-based authentication for more consumer safety. NPJ Science of Food 8, 21 - pdf


The Origin of Grapevine

Four years of hard work, almost 4000 genomes - the fruit of this effort has now been published in Science. The Wild Grapevine Collection of the KIT had an important role here. It could be shown that Grapevine was domesticated twice independently, once in the Caucasus to produce wine, a second time in the Near East to get table grapes. During its migration to the West, there were numerous love affairs with local wild grapevines, giving rise to the large diversity of grapevines. This project joined people from 16 countries, despite sometimes difficult political circumstances and allows a deep look into the complex history of this crop plant that not only founded civilisations, but was also one of the first globally traded goods, breaching the borders of geography, language, and religion. The treasure of knowledge generated in this project has not even been scratched - during the time, when grapevine, by an interplay between climatic disruptions and human migration, conquered many regions, it collected genes that help to cope with adverse conditions. These genes can help now to safeguard viticulture against the consequences of climate change - this is exactly, what we do now in our Interreg Upper Rhine project Kliwiresse. Seminar as part of the Saturday University Freiburg.

Science article

Interview with the Washington Post

Press release by the KIT

Youtube on the impact of the project for the region

The Campus as Space for Life


Climate change is not only affecting Nature, it is also making life in human ecosystems more and more difficult. Heat waves will hit our cities more often than in the past and they will be more massive. Trees can help us to mitigate the challenge. By their transpiration, they can cool air temperature by more than 5 degrees, and their shade gives shelter to humans and animals alike. However, more and more urban trees suffer from Dieback and have to be cut down, also in Karlsruhe, also at our Campus. What can we do against it? How can we find out, to what degree a tree is stressed and what it needs to recover again? In frame of the project Renature, we will, together with partners at the Campus Alpin, ITAS, and the University Freiburg, use our longstanding expertise in plant stress to assess the stress status of trees in the Campus and develop a science based strategy for stress management. This project was among the three that were selected for the kick-off of the new Innovation Campus Sustainability of KIT and the University of Freiburg.

During the last four years, we have been working in the grassroot network Klima - Inititative - Technologie (K-I-T) to for a sustainable improvement of the Campus as Ecosystem. Renature will help uns in using science for transformation. Not only for the sake of us humans that want to live and work here, but also for the sake of other life forms, for which we bear responsibility.






The new "Strasburger"

127 years ago Eduard Strasburger founded the textbook of botany, which appeared now in the 38. edition - this makes the "Strasburger" the biology textbook with the longest history. Peter Nick contributed a couple of 100 pages to the topics structure and function of the plant body and plant development. The "Strasburger" pursues the goal to depict the entire knowledge on plants, comprehensively, up-to-date, and at the same time filtered. Even though it had never been easier to acquire information, the problem is progressively to filter relevant from irrelevant. Textbooks are, therefore, not outdated, but more important than ever. more...


The State Teaching Award 2015 was given to Peter Nick and Mathias Gutmann. The money was used to found the Forum. Beyond faculties and disciplines, we debate here on controversial topics. more...



Switch Actin With Light

Actin, the protein forming our muscle, is also found in plants. This is actually non-intuitive, since plants do not move by muscle force. Since three decades we have tried to understand, for what purpose plant cells use actin. The answer is that actin has rather a sensory function, enabling cells to measure their integrity. In the past, we searched for ways, in cooperation with the lab of Anne Ulrich at the IBG, to modulate the response of actin by artificial peptides that can penetrate plant membranes. One of these peptides, BP100, was now altered in a way that it can be controlled by light. This led to the question, whether this allows to steer the behaviour of actin by light. We tested this in tobacco cells, where actin has become visible by virtue of a fluorescent protein, such that its response can be followed microscopically in living cells. In fact, we could elicit, in cells treated with this switchable peptide, by light a reorganisation of actin filaments. Thus, it is possible to deceive these cells, pretending that their membrane is still intact, although the peptide has already penetrated. Using this technology, it has become possible, without the need for genetic engineering, to manipulate living cells by optogenetics.


207. Hrebonkin A, Afonin S, Nikitjuka A, Borysov OV, Leitis G, Babii O, Koniev S, Lorig T, Grage SL, Nick P, Ulrich AS, Jirgensons A, Komarov IV (2024) Spiropyran-based photoisomerizable a-amino acid for membrane-active peptide modification. Chem Eur J, doi 10.1002/chem.202400066 - pdf




How Can Plants Distinguish Stress Qualities?

Plants cannot run away, when they do not like their environment. They need to adapt. The ability to recognise and to appropriately respond to challenges is, thus, the central strategy for plant survival. We need to understand this as to prepare for climate change. Meanwhile, this has reached public consciousness. However, it is mostly unclear, how plant distinguish stress qualities. When different stresses act in concert, they even have to render decisions. This happens, for instance, during a hot summer day  - shall the leaves be cooled by transpiration, or shall the water rather be saved up to get through an ensuing drought? How can plants decide without a brain? For us, this world is so strange that we do not understand it. Here, our new concept starts - in brief, we propose that there are a handful of signals that mean, by recombination, different qualities of stress and, therefore, evoke different responses. Actually quite comparable to human language - the "words" are these signalling molecules, the "grammar" is their temporal sequence and combination. Using concrete examples we demonstrate that this idea works and develop its evolutionary context. While this concept may appear unusual, it leads to clear implications that can be tested experimentally, and it yields explanations to explain the complex stress responses of plants.


[63] Nick P (2023) Towards a Grammar of Plant Stress – Modular Signalling Conveys Meaning. Theor Exp Plant Physiol. doi 10.1007/s40626-023-00292-2 - pdf





Genetic Barcodes Crack Forensic Enigma

Since many years, we work on methods to unveil fake and surrogation of plant-based food, but also medicinal products using so-called DNA barcods. Our taxonomically carefully identified and developed collection of reference plants in the JKIP Experimental Station at the Adenauerring has been crucial to this work. Our work is often thematised in the media, just recently in a broadcast of the Hessische Rundfunk on Superfood that was then also shown by NDR, WDR, ARD and MDR (see video...). This echo has induced interest from those institutions that in Germany are in charge of food safety. Here, we obtained, in the middle of the Corona period, an unusual request by the Chemical Veterinary Investigation Office in Freiburg - they had to deal with several cases of animal poisoning, whether we could support them? We could - using a combination of microscopic diagnostics and DNA barcoding we could solve all cases. The usual method, where species are assigned through a statistic value of sequence similarity, was refined for this purpose. We used (statistically ignored) specific sequence motifs as genetic fingerprints - this approach is known in evolution research as homology by specific quality. This forensic study has now been published in PloS ONE:

204. Schweikle S, Häser A, Wetters S, Raisin M, Greiner M, Fischer U, Pietsch K, Suntz M, Nick P (2023) DNA barcoding as new diagnostic tool to lethal plant poisoning in herbivorous mammals. PloS ONE 18, e0292275 - pdf

What our research is about

Life is not easy. There are two ways to cope – animals run away, plants adapt. We want to understand, how. The key are plant cells, since they mediate shape, adaptation and the enormous diversity of plants.




Evolution solves problems in a sustainable, highly diverse manner. Can we valorise this diversity? We work to protect and use diversity. We develop methods, to safeguard consumer protections in times of globalisation. more... Our research network, funded by Interreg Upper Rhine uses resilience factors from the almost extinct European Wild Grapevine to develop KliWi-varieties (for Klima-Widerstandsfähig). more...
Plants are masters of adaptation. How do they overcome stress? We work on jasmonic acid, the plant "adrenalin", but also about the immune system of grapevine. more.. Ecosystem on chip for sustainable plant protection (Interreg Science Offensive, 2019-2022). more...
Plant cells can self organise without a "Big Brother". Central is the ability of each cell to develop a direction. How does this work? more... Microtubules, a central element of the plant cytoskeleton, steer plant growth. Can we use this to develop less harmful herbicides?(BAYER, 2018-2024)