PhD students at the Vienna BioCenter form a tight-knit community and organize the Vienna BioCenter PhD Symposium every year, which gathers molecular life scientists from across the globe to share the latest developments in the field. During this year's event, students were awarded for exceptional research in these life science fields: molecular machines and chromatin biology to transcription, neuroscience, and developmental biology.
The best PhD theses from the program defended that year are recognized with the Vienna BioCenter PhD Awards. Five students received the award this year, with two from GMI.
Michael Schon won the Vienna BioCenter PhD Award for his work to increase our understanding of gene activation during plant embryonic development, a process which is responsible for the diversity of cell types found in organisms. He developed novel molecular and computational methods to profile RNA from individual cells. Of particular interest is the ability of his methods to identify the starts and ends of RNA molecules from low-input samples, enabling him to catalog RNA isoforms (variants of RNA that come from the same gene) with unprecedented precision and accuracy.
Michael is a postdoctoral researcher at Wageningen University and Research, a premiere plant science center in the Netherlands, one of Europe’s largest food exporters. In his new role, he sees an opportunity to tackle a non-trivial problem: to translate knowledge from model organisms to a crop species (and vice versa).
Michael grew up in Iowa, the leader of corn production in the United States. This agricultural environment may explain his early exposure to plant research; At the age of fourteen he worked as a pollinator in breeding fields, later to return to the same research station during his undergraduate studies. At GMI, he took advantage of courses offered by Vienna BioCenter Core Facilities, including informatics and data visualization. During his doctoral research, Michael “got a kick out of” computational problems. He says that “a satisfying certainty comes from proving that an algorithm works.”
Michael’s transcriptional tools grew from this affinity for computational problems. Three tools are the culmination of his ambitious project: Tissue Enrichment Test, NanoPARE, and Bookend. The Tissue Enrichment Test became a standard quality control step for Arabidopsis embryo and endosperm transcriptomes. NanoPARE has been adopted by multiple labs for experiments where little RNA can be recovered, including plant host-pathogen interfaces. Bookend has potential to reannotate transcriptomes at cellular resolution through single-cell RNA-seq atlases.
Sean Montgomery is a recipient of the 2022 VBC PhD Award. His award-winning doctoral research suggests that genomic imprinting evolved around 480 million years ago, about 320 million years earlier than previously thought.
Before Sean started his doctoral research, genomic imprinting had only been described in mammals and flowering plants. In some organisms, only one of the parental genes is used for transcription of DNA to RNA, which is then translated into proteins. This unique process of preferential gene expression is called genomic imprinting. In the liverwort – a moss-like plant – paternal genes are not used for transcription, i.e., are turned off, during embryo development. Sean discovered that all the paternal genetic material had a molecular tag that turned it off and suppressed its expression in the embryo. His findings are published in eLife.
During his bachelor’s program at University of British Columbia, Sean gained an interest in epigenetics through reading popular science books. He came up with a very short list of institutes focusing on plant epigenetics and from that list, only GMI responded to Sean’s Ph.D. application. He described his meeting with group leader Fred Berger as serendipitous – at the time, Fred’s lab was just starting to explore chromatin epigenetics in bryophytes. This first foray into bryophyte chromatin uncovered a potentially ancestral way to keep silent parts of the genome turned off, and was published in Current Biology.
Sean’s currently an EMBO postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Genomic Regulation. His idea is to broaden the scope of what we know about heterochromatin diversity and function across eukaryotes.
News about awardees from the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology and the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology can be found by visiting Vienna BioCenter's newsroom. Here is an overview of the remaining award recipients:
Jessica Stock, recent PhD graduate from the lab of Andrea Pauli at the IMP, described a new mechanism that explains how a single receptor can both generate and sense the concentration gradient of a molecular signal to steer cell migration in the early development of zebrafish embryos.
Jiri Wald, from the lab of Thomas Marlovits, formerly at the IMP and IMBA, worked to reveal the architecture, functional cycle, and the mechanism of a molecular motor that interacts with DNA. In his thesis, he showed how the RuvAB branch migration complex, a grouping of proteins, converts chemical energy into mechanical work to allow the recombination and repair of DNA.
For his doctoral research in the Gerlich lab at IMBA, Maximilian Schneider's work improved upon our understanding of chromosome formation with a focus on chromatin material properties. He showed for the first time a direct role of condensin independent compaction in chromosome mechanical function.
For his outstanding presentation at a Monday Seminar, Felix Holstein from the lab of Anna Obenauf at the IMP received the Mattias Lauwers Award.