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Parsing Nature's Elegant Solutions


  • Title: Postdoctoral Fellow, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, through 2008; Group Leader, Institute of Molecular Biotechnology in Vienna, starting January 2009
  • Education: PhD, EMBL Heidelberg and Ruprecht-Karls University Heidelberg, 2004
  • Recommended by: Victor Ambros

Julius Brennecke had big plans to pursue a career in medical research, but stints as a field assistant in the Galapagos Islands and in the Serengeti convinced him to change course. "The adventures that I had [there] just reinforced my attachment to nature and to [understanding] living processes," he says. "I realized that what I'd like to do most was to combine that passion and interest with molecular biology to basically come to an understanding of how processes function on the molecular level." What has always amazed him most about biological processes, Brennecke says, is that when he considers how he might have solved a particular problem, the way that nature actually solved it is "always so much more elegant and so much more functional."

He was working on his PhD at EMBL in Heidelberg when serendipity struck. Brennecke was tasked with making sense of a Drosophila mutation that had proven unwilling to give up its secret. He happened to be on journal club duty when the first papers came out describing microRNAs — Brennecke followed the inspiration and, sure enough, the mutation turned out to be a member of this class of small RNAs. "We went on to explore the microRNA targeting [mechanism]," he says; the team merged computational and experimental data to demonstrate how the miRNA pairing process worked.

Brennecke is just wrapping up a postdoc with Greg Hannon at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, in which he took advantage of deep sequencing technologies to study piwi-interacting RNAs. The team found that piRNAs serve as "a sort of immune system on the RNA level," he says — they appear to silence transposons, preventing them from hijacking the genome. It's a system he plans to study in more detail.

At this point, he and Hannon's team have a "bird's eye view" of piRNAs based on "unique patterns which are highly suggestive of how the system can work," he says. More data must be gathered, but what is completely clear so far is the importance of the piRNA pathway: when it's deleted in model organisms, it results in full sterility, Brennecke says. "The protection against [transposons] is of vital importance for the species to keep existing."

Looking ahead

As Brennecke makes his way to Vienna to set up his own lab at IMBA, where he will be a group leader starting in January, he says Drosophila will continue to be his model org of choice thanks to the high level of conservation between flies and mammals in the key pathway of interest.

Publications of note

In April 2003, Cell published a paper that largely sums up Brennecke's PhD work. "Bantam encodes a developmentally regulated microRNA that controls cell proliferation and regulates the proapoptotic gene hid in Drosophila" describes the work that went into proving that a particular mutation in the fly genome was actually a member of the newly discovered class of miRNAs.

Another Cell paper, this one published in 2007 and entitled "Discrete small RNA-generating loci as master regulators of transposon activity in Drosophila," provides a glimpse of his postdoc years in Hannon's lab, Brennecke says. During this time, he investigated piRNAs, which are heavily involved in a genome's ability to protect itself from transposons.

And the Nobel goes to …

Brennecke says he was once told that most Nobel laureates win for a discovery they made before the age of 25 — and, based on that, he just doesn't think he has a chance. "I have a strong feeling this is well over [for me]," he says. "I don't see anything I did so far as real pioneer work."

The Scan

Single-Cell Sequencing Points to Embryo Mosaicism

Mosaicism may affect preimplantation genetic tests for aneuploidy, a single-cell sequencing-based analysis of almost three dozen embryos in PLOS Genetics finds.

Rett Syndrome Mouse Model Study Points to RNA Editing Possibilities

Investigators targeted MECP2 in mutant mouse models of Rett syndrome, showing in PNAS that they could restore its expression and dial down symptoms.

Investigators Find Shared, Distinct Genetic Contributors to Childhood Hodgkin Lymphoma

An association study in JAMA Network Open uncovers risk variants within and beyond the human leukocyte antigen locus.

Transcriptomic, Epigenetic Study Appears to Explain Anti-Viral Effects of TB Vaccine

Researchers report in Science Advances on an interferon signature and long-term shifts in monocyte cell DNA methylation in Bacille Calmette-Guérin-vaccinated infant samples.