Why are small RNAs important?
When the first eukaryotic genomes have been sequenced, the surprise was very big that most of the DNA does not encode for proteins, but is actually what we call non-coding. And from this non-coding fraction a large portion corresponds to mobile genetic elements or remnants thereof. Small RNAs are very important in controlling the relocation or spread of these elements within the genome. They basically limit the transposable elements to where they are right now. This is in particular very important in the germline, where reproductive cells are formed, because errors that happen in the germline will be passed on to the next generation and this can be very detrimental. In our group, we are interested firstly in how small RNAs are made and, secondly, how they elicit their function.
What is special about your approach?
The biogenesis of small RNAs involves more than 30 factors. So far we only understand a few single factors – what their role and what their function is. We really want to understand what is the interplay between the individual factors: how do these factors come together to elicit their function and how are they regulated. Enzymes need to be tightly controlled. They should only be active at a certain location in the cell, at a certain time point. Only if we understand very precisely how an enzyme or how proteins work we can also manipulate them even more precisely to ask other questions that we couldn’t ask before.
How does structural biology help you understand small RNAs?
I am a biochemist and structural biologist by training. We want to understand how proteins accomplish very complex tasks within the cell. Often you can understand problems when you look at them with very large magnification. In structural biology we try to determine structures of proteins or architectures of protein assemblies, in order to figure out, what they are actually doing.
What fascinates you about science?
The fascinating thing is that nature usually has come up with several solutions for one problem. For example, genome defense systems are already present in bacteria as they are in humans. Conceptually they are similar, but the mechanistic details differ quite tremendously. If you understand the system of one organism you can try to understand the system in a different organism and compare it. Science is never-ending. Answers that we find will generate more and more questions,you never stop learning. You learn new methods and you always find new questions to answer.
What motivates you?
At one point, you find a question that you find interesting. Then it takes a long time to collect all the data and information you need to answer this question. The most motivating moment is when you have all data together, when all the puzzle pieces in the end fit together, and make sense, and when you can answer questions.
The same motivation comes from the training of students. To train students to become independent researchers, so that they are able to do experiments and address questions without actually needing you. When they come up with results they generated independently – that is also very motivating.
What's your best advice for students?
Just follow up what you are really interested in. Try to find out what interests you and what motivates you. I knew that science - chemistry, biology - came very easy to me. I didn’t need to study much and it was very easy for me to understand. If things come easy to you, the chance that you will be successful is very high. Especially if you enjoy what you are doing. Just try to find out what you really want to do.