Cell Biology and Biophysics
The Cell Biology and Biophysics Unit develops a wide range of experimental themes to provide a comprehensive view of cell organisation in time and space. The four areas that the unit presently concentrates on are membrane trafficking, cytoskeletal networks, the cell nucleus, and the cell cycle. Physicists are working together with cell biologists to elucidate some of the fundamental rules that govern the organization of these compartments, their dynamics and function in the same time as they participate to the development of new instruments and tools.
Developmental Biology is concerned with how the body patterns of multicellular animals are designed and constructed. Developmental Biologists wish to understand how the genetic information is used to make the many different types of cells in an embryo and organize them in a coherent body pattern. A number of groups in the Developmental Biology Unit are increasingly concerned with the cellular basis of pattern formation mechanisms. Research in this area includes studying how asymmetries are generated at the single cell level and how such asymmetries control gene expression at the subcellular level; how cell asymmetries are translated into polarity of whole tissues and how individual cells and groups of cells coordinate their movement. Understanding the cellular and molecular basis for these cell behaviours in simple model systems will help us to understand the vastly more complex morphogenetic processes that shape the body during embryonic development.
This organisational unit includes three research groups. The group of the EMBL Associate Director (Prof. M. Hentze) studies posttranscriptional gene regulation, mammalian iron metabolism and diseases related to disturbances of mRNA or iron metabolism. The group of EMBO Director Maria Leptin investigates the mechanisms and forces that determine cell shape in Drosophila. Eric Karsenti's group studies planctonic ecosystems in the TARA OCEANS expedition.
The genome encodes the genetic blueprint that coordinates all cellular processes, which ultimately give rise to phenotype. The expression of genetic information is tightly regulated in both time and space at multiple steps, including at the transcriptional, post-transcriptional and post-translational levels. The Genome Biology Unit takes a systems biology approach to unravel these complex processes at all scales, integrating experimental and computational approaches.
Structural and Computational Biology
The Structural and Computational Biology Unit aims to bridge the world of the small biological entities (such as proteins, nucleic acids) with the world of the larger ones (such as cells and organisms). Although different scales (molecules, complexes, organelles, cells and organisms) require different approaches and technologies, integrated structural information is desired to be able to navigate across scales. At the structural level the unit has started an ambitious project aimed at obtaining the structure of a cell at atomic resolution that might act as a new coordinate system for the integration of various other structural information. A large scale effort on the characterization of all protein complexes and improvement of electronic 3D tomography should help to achieve this goal. If electron tomography could deliver images of cell slices at 20 Å resolution and if computational tools could be developed that enable to place all the protein complexes determined by a combination of X-ray, NMR and EM into the respective 3D images, then such a coordinate system could be established. On top of this structural layer, the unit has a strong record in computational biology. Respective tools that are being developed should allow to provide context information e.g. on interaction networks, the identification of important motifs or hypothesis generation by modelling and simulation.