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April 15, 2015

Welcome Professor Wolfgang Fischle




The BESE Division has recently welcomed a new Professor of Bioscience, Dr. Wolfgang Fischle. Prof. Fischle joins from the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany and has been at KAUST since March. Prof. Fischle was a NET fellow of the European Network of Excellence “The Epigenome” and was a Faculty member of the Excellence Cluster at the University of Göttingen, Germany. Prior to this he was a Postdoctoral Fellow funded by a scholarship of the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation with Prof. David Allis (University of Virginia and The Rockefeller University). Prof. Fischle received his Ph.D. from the University of Tübingen, Germany after an extensive research stay at the J.D. David Gladstone Institutes at the University of California San Francisco, USA. During his Ph.D. work he received a scholarship of the Boehringer Ingelheim Foundation.

Prof. Fischle answered a few questions about his research and the motivation for coming to KAUST and doing research:

What are your research interests?

To sustain life in different environments, cells and organisms must adjust to different conditions and external cues. In contrast to immediate and mostly transient responses to short-term stimuli, processes of long-term adaptation require lasting changes in gene expression patterns. Such changes are considered epigenetic as they provide an inheritable principle of gene control. On a molecular stage epigenetic processes are directed on the level of chromatin, the packaging form of eukaryotic genomes. Here, DNA, the molecule of inheritance, as well as histones, the major scaffolding proteins of chromatin, are subject to a large variety of enzyme-controlled, chemical modifications. These direct distinct structural and functional states of chromatin thereby establishing differential usage of the genome in cell type variation and specification.

My research aims to gain detailed and molecular understanding of fundamental epigenetic processes. In particular, I am investigating how the chemical modifications of chromatin are functionally translated in a cellular environment. Here, my focus is on specialized proteins, RNAs and small cellular signaling molecules. To address the complex interplay of these factors from multiple angles, my laboratory is applying highly interdisciplinary approaches. These include advancing technologies for establishing and analyzing complex chromatin systems in the test tube by applying biochemistry and biophysics, molecular and cellular biology for studying essential chromatin components as well as global and systematic analyses of modules and networks of epigenetic regulation. The long-term aim is to rebuild self-sustaining chromatin regulatory circuits from the bottom-up.

What motivated you to come to KAUST and the BESE Division?

I am excited to contribute to this (still relatively) new enterprise and to have the chance to be involved in building something unique. The atmosphere on campus but also in the community is very unique. It inspires me to see so many nationalities working together to be a raw model for this region and to contribute to its further scientific, economic but also social development. For me science has no borders and KAUST can be a prime example for this principle.

The BESE Division is extremely interdisciplinary (like KAUST in general). I think that for solving major scientific questions one has to approach the problems from multiple angles. I am looking much forward interacting with colleagues, who use different model systems and technologies as well as who have different perspectives and backgrounds.    

What makes your research relevant to the Division and the Kingdom?

While our current questions are very basic and while we are trying to understand the fundamental principles how genomes are organized and regulated in the nucleus of cells, the processes we are studying are universal to all eukaryotes. Organisms use epigenetic processes as major means of adaptation. This includes adjustment to environmental conditions (weather, water, ions/salt, nutrition, etc.), but also to changed stimuli (such as for example in learning and memory, in diseased vs. healthy conditions, etc.). Therefore, our work interfaces with many of the systems and problems studied in the BESE Division.

While epigenetics has been studied for decades, we are just now beginning to understand the molecular principles behind these many processes. Since epigenetic changes within a cell or organisms are in contrast to mutations not permanent, targeting these could open up completely new avenues of shaping our environment to the benefit of human mankind. For example, we now realize that many human diseases (e.g. cancer, diabetes, etc.) have epigenetic components and once we understand their involvement better, there is hope that we can use this knowledge for novel forms of therapy. Similarly, how plants adapt to changes in growth conditions might – besides other mechanisms – get controlled on an epigenetic level. Here, the fundamental scientific insights might ultimately be translated into new approaches for cultivating crops or lifestock.    

One of the pleasures of scientific research is discovering the unknown, what drives you to discovery? 

As a person I am very curious, restless and driven. It excites me to solve problems and to go the unbeaten path. If something is not known, I want to find the answers. Nature and particularly life has so many mysteries and I want to get behind these secrets. In science, there is nothing more rewarding than being ultimately able to connect many small dots into a big picture of understanding. Having these moments of revelation is a huge reward.

Lastly, a major pleasure of being a lab head is to see how junior colleagues evolve and grow up to become more and more bold to ask and address questions that I have not even thought of. ​