On the trail of a “ubiquitous” molecule

The molecule ubiquitin serves as an intracellular stop signal and controls what happens in a living cell – just as stop signs regulate traffic on the road. The term “ubiquitin” results from the fact that the molecules occur “ubiquitously” in all eukaryotic cells and control a multitude of different biochemical reactions, from cell division to the defence against bacterial infections. At any given time, each human cell contains thousands of ubiquitin molecules that must be properly placed in different, but specific locations. If their regulation is disturbed, this can lead to diseases such as cancer, neurodegenerative diseases or high blood pressure. Ubiquitin is an extremely small molecule and can only be seen with extreme magnification, such as under an electron microscope. Professor Brenda A. Schulman, Director of the Department of Molecular Machines and Signalling at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Martinsried, and her colleagues have developed numerous methods with which the ubiquitin system can be further investigated. They use approaches from chemistry, cell biology, mass spectrometry, biochemistry and structural biology. The 51-year-old researcher comes from Tucson, Arizona. She discovered her passion for chemistry and biology and for how molecules perform amazing processes back in the third year of high school. In addition to her research, she regularly runs and enjoys free time with her husband.

Understanding the transmission of stimuli through touch

Our skin allows us to perceive touch, pressure, warmth, cold or pain. This happens via sensory cells and free nerve endings, which are located in the skin surface and are responsible for the sense of touch as well as the sense of temperature and pain. Professor Gary R. Lewin, head of the research group and coordinator of the Department of Diseases of the Nervous System at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, and his team are investigating how mechanical and thermal stimuli are absorbed by sensory cells and transduced into electrical signals. To this end, the research group is investigating naked mole rats, which serve as model organisms due to their special physiological properties. Naked mole rats have no coat and are very sensitive to touch. Due to their blindness, these rodents have a particularly strong sense of touch, which they use for social interaction. Lewin was able to show that this species lacks certain types of pain perception. Further investigation of the causes and underlying mechanisms could help to develop new treatments and remedies for pain.  His enthusiasm for research arose during his doctoral thesis when he had the experience of measuring processes that no one had ever measured before. Gary R. Lewin is Manx – born on the Isle of Man – and grew up in Douglas. The 54-year-old is married, has three children and loves going travelling with his family. He is also currently completing his glider pilot’s license.