Ibrahim Cissé joins the MPI-IE as new director

Biophysicist investigates the formation of enzyme clusters enabling gene transcription in living cells

September 20, 2021

With the recruitment of Ibrahim Cissé as new Director, the Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics (MPI-IE) expands its research as well as technology portfolio. The new director wants to understand what happens at the molecular level when a cell activates a gene. Therefore, he and his team develop Single molecule and super-resolution microscopy approaches to visualize gene expression and other processes in live cells, and to study protein clustering and the biomolecular condensation in transcription.

Starting September 2021, Ibrahim Cissé becomes new Director at the Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics in Freiburg (MPI-IE). He will join the Management Board of the Institute and continue research in his newly established the Biological Physics department.

“I am honored to join the Max Planck Society as a scientific member; I know I speak on behalf of my family, my lab members and myself, that we are all so incredibly excited to call beautiful Freiburg our new home. The MPI-IE Freiburg is such an incredible place with exceptional scientists & staff, and we are thrilled to become part of this great scientific legacy,” says Ibrahim Cissé.

Ibrahim Cissé investigates the behavior of individual molecules and biomolecular phase transition in living cells emerging from so-called weak and transient biomolecular interactions. In recent years, one particular area of interest in the Cissé Laboratory has been gene transcription – a central biological process in each cell in which the RNA polymerase II enzyme decodes DNA to mRNA to make proteins.

Imaging with unprecedented spatial & temporal resolution

He and his team use tools and their expertise from physics to shed new light on the biophysical principles that regulate these genomic processes. Super-resolution imaging with single-molecule sensitivity in live cells allows the team to observe what molecular events precisely occur when a cell turns on a gene. The imaging and computational methods that Ibrahim Cissé and his team pioneered are capable of visualizing molecule clusters that rapidly assemble and disassemble during gene expression and enable the researchers to study the formation and mechanisms of these enzyme clusters that are important for gene regulation.

“We develop and apply very sensitive microscopes that allow us to see individual molecules inside living cells and study their behavior. These methods allow us to study with unprecedented spatial & temporal resolution, how the genetic information encoded in DNA gets decoded in to RNA inside living cells,” explains Ibrahim Cissé.

With his approach of integrating physics, biology, and chemistry in one department, the new MPI-IE director sets out to deepen our understanding of how our genetic information is decoded in our cells. Moreover, an improved understanding of transcription processes has broad implications for human health because aberrant regulation of transcription is linked to many human diseases including cancer or neurodegenerative diseases.


Ibrahim Cissé was born in Niger and completed his PhD in physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (USA) in 2009. After a postdoctoral stay at the École Normale Supérieure of Paris (France), Cissé returned to the USA in 2013 to become a Research Specialist at Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia. In 2014, he moved to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, where he was first an assistant professor of Physics and then promoted to associate professor in the Department of Physics with a joint appointment in biology. Ibrahim Cissé joins the MPI of Immunobiology and Epigenetics in Freiburg from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena (USA) where he was appointed Professor of Physics in 2021. Ibrahim Cissé is the recipient of several scientific awards, including just recently the 2021 Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science.

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