Three new group leaders join Institute of Molecular Biology to investigate epigenetic processes during development and disease

Jean-Yves Roignant, Natalia Soshnikova, and Vijay Tiwari begin their research into epigenetic processes that control development and the occurrence of disease


The Institute of Molecular Biology (IMB) in Mainz has marked the start of 2012 with the groups of Dr. Jean-Yves Roignant, Dr. Natalia Soshnikova and Dr. Vijay Tiwari beginning their research into epigenetic processes that control development and the occurrence of disease.

The limited information found in genomes can be significantly increased in to a process known as alternative splicing. This allows a vast number of proteins to be produced from a single gene and it is estimated that 90 percent of our genes undergo such splicing. As a consequence, alternative splicing is essential for complex organisms to develop from a limited number of genes. Although up to 50 percent of disease-causing mutations affect splicing, little is known about the processes that ensure genes are correctly spliced during development. Dr. Jean-Yves Roignant has joined IMB from the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York, where he identified the involvement of a cellular machinery involved with this process, the exon junction complex (EJC). At IMB, Roignant and his team are now investigating the mechanism by which this machinery acts. A better understanding of splicing may lead to future therapeutic treatments of disease-causing mutations.

Although all cells in an organism have the same genome, there are over 200 different cell types, such as skin, muscle, and nerve cells. This diversity is generated from stem cells through the establishment and maintenance of different transcriptional programs, which activate specific genes in different cell types. At IMB, Dr. Natalia Soshnikova's research group will use stem cells to identify the epigenetic changes and associated alterations in transcription factor activity that occur during the establishment of different cell types. Her group will also investigate the transformation of healthy cells into tumorigenic ones. By studying the epigenetic control of cell identity and lineage commitment this research will shed light upon how cells become cancerous. Soshnikova previously worked at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, where she investigated the epigenetic control of genes responsible for the regulation of development.

When different cell types are established, cells need to respond to development-associated external cues. Epigenetic processes are crucial in regulating the activity of specific genes that mediate this response. Therefore, for a cell to convert such external cues into specific gene activity, signaling events trigged by these cues need to be coordinated and translated by the cell’s epigenetic machinery. Dr. Vijay Tiwari joined IMB from the Friedrich Miescher Institute in Basel in Switzerland, where he identified a mechanism by which cell signaling directly influences chromatin in response to development-associated external signals. At IMB, Tiwari's research group will study stem cell differentiation to determine exactly how chromatin structure is modulated by the interplay of cell signaling pathways and regulatory factors, how these mediate transcriptional activity and cell differentiation, and how these effects are altered in diseases such as cancer. This will provide fundamental knowledge regarding cell-fate programming which in turn will be relevant to both regenerative therapies and anti-cancer treatments.

About the Institute of Molecular Biology gGmbH

The Institute of Molecular Biology gGmbH (IMB) is a center of excellence in the life sciences that was established in 2011 on the campus of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). Research at IMB concentrates on three cutting-edge areas: epigenetics, developmental biology, and genome stability. The institute is a prime example of a successful collaboration between public authorities and a private foundation. The Boehringer Ingelheim Foundation has dedicated EUR 100 million for a period of ten years to cover the operating costs for research at IMB, while the state of Rhineland-Palatinate provided approximately EUR 50 million for the construction of a state-of-the-art building.

About the Boehringer Ingelheim Foundation

The Boehringer Ingelheim Foundation is an independent, non-profit organization committed to the promotion of the medical, biological, chemical, and pharmaceutical sciences. It was established in 1977 by Hubertus Liebrecht (1931-1991), a member of the shareholder family of the company Boehringer Ingelheim. With the PLUS 3 Perspectives Program and the Exploration Grants, the foundation supports independent group leaders. It also endows the internationally renowned Heinrich Wieland Prize as well as awards for up-and-coming scientists. In addition, the foundation pledged to donate EUR 100 million to finance the scientific running of the IMB at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz for ten years. In 2013, the Boehringer Ingelheim Foundation donated a further EUR 50 million to Mainz University.