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Marie Curie Fellowships for IMP postdocs

04 Mar 2019

Robyn Schenk and Jelle Jacobs, IMP postdocs in the labs of Meinrad Busslinger and Alexander Stark, were awarded the prestigious Marie Sklodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship.

On the work of Robyn Schenk

Robyn Schenk studies the highly specialized immune cells known as plasma cells. Plasma cells are formed during an immune response and their job is to produce antibodies. Antibodies are like molecular bullets that are specific for the pathogen that caused the immune response – they help to destroy the pathogen and, most importantly, provide long-term immunity. For example, when you get vaccinated, the goal is to develop antibodies so that you will be immune to the disease.

Plasma cells develop from another type of immune cell, called a B cell. Although these cells are related, they are completely different to each other in terms of the genes that they express. This is like an orchestra playing two different pieces of music. An orchestra has many different instruments, just like every cell has thousands of genes. Which instruments are being played influences the music, just like the genes being expressed changes the cell’s function. Gene expression is dictated by proteins called transcription factors. These are like the orchestral conductors of a cell.

“My research will be to study transcription factors that are essential for the switch from a B cell to a plasma cell and determine what genes they regulate”, says Robyn Schenk. “This will help us to understand what cellular pathways are required for plasma cells to fulfil their role as these important antibody-producing cells.”

Schenk’s mentor Meinrad Busslinger has a wealth of experience in studying the transcription factors that regulate B cell development: “His group is the ideal environment to further study how B cells develop into antibody-secreting plasma cells at the molecular level.”

On the work of Jelle Jacobs

An organism’s development and homeostasis critically depend on the accurate regulation of gene expression. Jelle Jacobs is a postdoc in the lab of Alexander Stark, which aims to elucidate the mechanisms behind this transcriptional regulation at the level of enhancer and core-promoter genomic elements, and the transcription factor and cofactor proteins that mediate the transcriptional output.

The field has so far mainly focused on transcriptional activation, while repression of genes that should not be expressed is an important aspect of transcriptional regulation. This is mediated by a specific class of TFs termed repressors and while their functions are crucial, how repression is achieved mechanistically has remained elusive.

“In my project, I will study the functional properties of repressors and the mechanisms of active repression”, says Jacobs. “I will test whether transcriptional repressors are usually dominant or if they can only silence certain activators but not others. To further uncover the mechanisms behind active repression, I will assess changes to DNA accessibility, histone modifications, Pol II activity and protein composition during acutely triggered active repression.”

This project aims to improve our mechanistic understanding of transcriptional repression, which despite its importance for development and disease has remained poorly understood.

About the Marie Curie Fellowships

In addition to Robyn Schenk and Jelle Jacobs, two postdocs of the neighbouring Institute of Molecular Biotechnology (IMBA) also became Marie Curie Fellows, which means that a total of four fellowships were awarded to scientists at the Vienna BioCenter.

The Marie Sklodowska-Curie actions (MSCA) support researchers at all stages of their careers, regardless of age and nationality. Researchers working across all disciplines are eligible for funding. The MSCA also support cooperation between industry and academia and innovative training to enhance employability and career development.