When motor neurons die, instructions from the brain no longer reach the muscles in the body. Those affected by the progressive nervous system disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) experience this first hand, and eventually end up wheelchair-bound. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that neurodegenerative diseases like ALS or Alzheimer’s could become the second most common cause of death by 2040.
“Many of these diseases begin with the loss of nerve cell `branches`”, says Dr. Marina Chekulaeva, head of a lab situated at the Berlin Institute for Medical Systems Biology (BIMSB) of the Max Delbrück Center. This loss is likely caused by the mislocalisation of messenger RNA molecules. Their delivery to the right location in the cell would require a specific cellular ‘postal system`, she explains. Chekulaeva wants to understand how this happens. The RNA biologist has now been accepted into the Heisenberg Program, an initiative of the German Research Foundation (DFG), which will fund her position at the Max Delbrück Center for the next five years.
When messenger RNA goes astray
Messenger RNA is usually delivered to the places within the neuron where it is needed via a cellular “postal system”: Certain sequences in their RNA function like ZIP codes, indicating where exactly the information should be sent. Transport proteins act as the postmen, using this information to deliver the mail to the correct address. The messenger RNA then instructs the cell as to which proteins it should produce at that location. Chekulaeva wants to determine the specific “postcodes” and “postmen”.
But what if the delivery goes wrong and the messenger RNA ends up somewhere in the cell where it is not needed at all? Chekulaeva suspects that faulty RNA metabolism could also be responsible for neuronal degeneration. Chekulaeva and her team are studying diseased neurons to understand how this “postal system” is dysregulated in ALS. They hope that findings from this research will help drugs to be identified that could combat the so far incurable disease in the future. Besides her research activities, Chekulaeva is an enthusiastic teacher for undergraduates in three Berlin universities.
About the Heisenberg Program
The aim of the DFG’s Heisenberg Program is to support researchers who already meet all the requirements for appointment to a permanent professorship and who also stand out due to their particularly impressive scientific achievements.
The programme provides researchers with five years of funding in order to facilitate their progression to a professorship. The Heisenberg Program also highly values the excellence in teaching, which is integral to a professorship position. It is named after German physicist Werner Heisenberg, who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1933 for his pioneering work in quantum mechanics.