Kathrin de la Rosa

Stolen DNA strengthens immune diversity

To combat pathogens, the immune system needs an enormous number of different antibodies. In an MDC study, a group led by BIH professor Kathrin de la Rosa has now described in the journal PNAS a “stealing” mechanism that contributes to antibody diversity.

A few years ago, Professor Kathrin de la Rosa and her colleagues in the lab of the Swiss immunologist Antonio Lanzavecchia made an unusual discovery. The team found antibodies in the blood of malaria patients that had been made according to the blueprint of a gene that actually had a totally different function. “This gene usually codes for a receptor that inhibits the immune system, which the malaria pathogen may target to reproduce more easily,” explains de la Rosa, who directs the Immune Mechanisms and Human Antibodies Lab at Berlin’s Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC) and the Berlin Institute of Health at Charité (BIH).

However, the immune systems of the people infected with malaria had obviously fought back. “The antibodies we found had integrated a piece of this receptor, called LAIR1, thereby gaining the ability to recognize the parasites more effectively,” says de la Rosa, who also holds at the BIH the Johanna Quandt Professorship for Translational Immune Mechanisms, which is funded by Stiftung Charité.

The strategy is widespread

In more than 80 percent of the European and African donors, we detected antibodies whose creation required the use of foreign genes or other distant DNA fragments.
Protrait Lebedin
Mikhail Lebedin First author and researcher in de la Rosa's lab

The initial discovery raised many questions for de la Rosa. Could this trick only be performed by the immune system of malaria patients? Or by people of African origin? Is the LAIR1 receptor unique regarding its ability to integrate into the antibodies? Or did they perhaps discovered a wholly unknown mechanism used generally by the human immune system to tailor-make antibodies in its B cells?

In a study just published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), de la Rosa and her team have provided initial answers to these questions. “In more than 80 percent of the European and African donors, we detected antibodies whose creation required the use of foreign genes or other distant DNA fragments,” reports Mikhail Lebedin, first author of the study and a researcher in de la Rosa’s lab at the MDC. “And it did not matter if these people had been infected with malaria before or what ethnic group they belonged to.”

The theft follows a plan

In addition, according to Lebedin, the foreign material was found only in one specific region of the antibodies, the heavy-chain segments of the Y-shaped proteins. For him and his colleagues, this was an important indication that the “theft” of foreign genetic material followed a plan. The researchers found evidence substantiating this when they mapped the stolen fragments onto the human genome and discovered conspicuous patterns of their origin. “For example, they very often came from the mitochondria of the cells or from the ends of chromosomes in the cell nucleus,” Lebedin explains.

For their work, the research team developed their own technique for studying the antibody transcripts – i.e., the RNA matrices that are read during protein production – using high-throughput analysis. “We needed a highly sensitive procedure, as antibodies with foreign components would otherwise be easily overlooked in the masses of antibodies,” says de la Rosa. “For only about one in every ten thousand to a hundred thousand antibodies in the blood has these special properties.” But that is apparently enough to make the immune system particularly robust under certain conditions – such as malaria.

Mikhail Lebedin and Kathrin de la Rosa in the lab.

The goal is a cellular vaccine

An illustration of antibody diversification by exchange of DNA between chromosomes. DNA encoded on distant loci of different chromosomes can integrate into the antibody heavy chain locus (both the maternal or paternal allele). In this way, other parts of our genome contribute to the formation of antibodies containing additional fragments (highlighted in distinct colors).

“So far, the assumption has been that the diversity of antibodies only resulted from mutations in the antibody genes,” de la Rosa explains. But this assumption was incomplete. “Nevertheless, our study ultimately raises more questions than it answers,” she says. For de la Rosa, the two most important questions are: How does the process of stealing DNA actually work? And can it be used to artificially create specific new antibodies and the B cells that produce them?

“During the COVID pandemic, millions of people around the world learned and personally experienced how important antibodies are, as they protect us from pathogens like SARS-CoV-2. They are created when we get infected or vaccinated,” the immunologist says. “For me, it’s very important to understand how antibody diversity comes about, for only then can we develop new approaches that can help us make even better vaccines in the future.” One possibility on de la Rosa’s mind is a cellular vaccine. Her goal is to modify endogenous B cells in her lab so that they produce antibodies that are even more powerful than their natural models.

Text: Anke Brodmerkel

Further information


Mikhail Lebedin et al. (2022): “Different classes of genomic inserts contribute to human antibody diversity.” PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2205470119


Prof. Kathrin de la Rosa
Head of the Immune Mechanisms and Human Antibodies Lab
MDC & BIH at Charité
Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC)


Jana Schlütter
Editor and Deputy Head
Communications Department
Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC)

Phone: +49 30 9406-2121
jana.schluetter@mdc-berlin.de or presse@mdc-berlin.de

Max Delbrück Center

The Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (Max Delbrück Center) is one of the world’s leading biomedical research institutions. Max Delbrück, a Berlin native, was a Nobel laureate and one of the founders of molecular biology. At the locations in Berlin-Buch and Mitte, researchers from some 70 countries study human biology – investigating the foundations of life from its most elementary building blocks to systems-wide mechanisms. By understanding what regulates or disrupts the dynamic equilibrium of a cell, an organ, or the entire body, we can prevent diseases, diagnose them earlier, and stop their progression with tailored therapies. Patients should be able to benefit as soon as possible from basic research discoveries. This is why the Max Delbrück Center supports spin-off creation and participates in collaborative networks. It works in close partnership with Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin in the jointly-run Experimental and Clinical Research Center (ECRC), the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH) at Charité, and the German Center for Cardiovascular Research (DZHK). Founded in 1992, the Max Delbrück Center today employs 1,800 people and is 90 percent funded by the German federal government and 10 percent by the State of Berlin.

The Berlin Institute of Health (BIH)


The Berlin Institute of Health (BIH) is a biomedical research institution focusing on translational research and precision medicine. The BIH is dedicated to improving the prediction in progressive diseases and developing advanced therapies for unmet medical needs in order to improve patients’ health and quality of life. The Institute is committed to providing research solutions and innovation enabling value-based, personalized healthcare. The BIH is funded 90% by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and 10% by the State of Berlin. The two founding institutions, Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin and Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC), are independent, member entities within the BIH.