Dance of the genes

Text: Joachim Czichos

Ulrike Gaul, one of the world’s leading developmental biologists, has made major contributions to our understanding of the genetic foundations of the development of living creatures. At the Gene Center of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, she will now anchor a new research focus in the field of molecular systems biology.

Ulrike Gaul is an optimistic and energetic person: “Complaining won’t solve any problems,” she quips. Her attitude also reflects 20 years of experience as a researcher in the United States. This is where, after completing studies in biochemistry and physics at the University of Tübingen, Ulrike Gaul has gained international recognition for her pioneering work in the area of molecular systems biology. A Professor at Rockefeller University in New York since 1993, her research on the fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) has contributed greatly to a better understanding of how the activity of genes during developmental processes is regulated.

Gaul compares the role played by genes in the development of organisms to a complex ballet with hundreds if not thousands of dancers. Even though each of the dancers has different steps to perform, they must all move on cue and in a highly coordinated fashion. “We want to know how the dancers get their signals and how they communicate with one another”, says the scientist explaining her work. Combining experimental work with mathematical modelling, her field, systems biology, aims to examine complex biological processes at the level of the system as a whole. Staying with the image of the ballet, “it is not the actions of individual dancers that we focus on but the dance as an integrated whole”, says Gaul. “We are trying to decode the underlying choreography.”

The first realistic model

For her research, she uses fruit flies, which provide a very useful and accessible model of how a fertilised egg develops into a mature organism through the action of a multitude of genes. For years, Gaul has been investigating how genes are switched on and off during development so that organs and tissues are created at the right time and in the right positions. She has discovered numerous regulatory elements that control the spatial and temporal patterns of gene activity. Though not identical, these control mechanisms are similar in all animals. Typically, groups of genes combine to form larger regulatory networks. Collaborating with physicists and computational biologists, Ulrike Gaul succeeded in developing a realistic model of such a network for the first time. The aim of this kind of modelling is to predict the reaction of the system to disruption and ultimately to permit targeted intervention.

Now Gaul is moving her research work – and her flies – to the Gene Center of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LMU) and the CIPSM (Center for Integrated Protein Science Munich) Cluster of Excellence. At the Gene Center, several independent research groups are studying various aspects of gene regulation, using yeast and mammalian cells and the tools of biochemistry or structural biology. This creates an excellent opportunity for Gaul to pursue her interests in an interdisciplinary fashion. “It is the great potential offered by collaborations with my colleagues which make the Gene Center and Munich so attractive to me.”

A better understanding of disease

Even though her work focuses on basic research, the results are likely to have important medical implications. “Effective methods for decoding regulatory networks, as we want to develop them, will contribute to a better understanding of diseases and enable us to devise suitable therapies; they will also be useful in stem cell research,” the Humboldt Professor comments. Expectations are high, and they are shared by Patrick Cramer, Director of the Gene Center in Munich and Dean of the Faculty of Chemistry and Pharmacy. He sees Gaul’s appointment as a key element in the plan to develop the strategic field of systems biology in Munich and to enhance the international visibility of the Gene Center and the CIPSM Cluster of Excellence. Ulrike Gaul’s can-do attitude is perfectly suited to this endeavour, and she in turn finds that the atmosphere and conditions in German science have improved greatly since her departure 20 years ago.