Melina Schuh is new Director at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry
The Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Biophysical Chemistry has appointed Melina Schuh as Director. In January 2016, the biochemist moved with her group from the prestigious MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge (England) to the institute. In the newly established Department of Meiosis she will investigate how fertilizable egg cells develop in mammals. She will also focus on how problems in this process can cause miscarriage, infertility, and Down’s Syndrome. With her appointment as Director the MPI for Biophysical Chemistry has now has 13 Departments.
“It is a great pleasure to have a young, committed, and internationally acknowledged scientist as Director at our institute to boost our research in the field of organismic biology,” Managing Director Herbert Jäckle is pleased to announce.
Melina Schuh and her team will investigate how fertilizable egg cells are produced by specialized cell division known as meiosis. “The subject of our research is also of particular medical relevance because egg cells in mammals and humans very often do not contain the right number of chromosomes, a defect scientists term aneuploidy,” the new Director explains.
Before an egg cell can merge with a sperm cell, it must halve its set of chromosomes. Only one of the two sets of chromosomes remains in the mature egg cell while the other is transferred out of the cell plasma to form a so-called polar body. Problems in this process lead to egg cells with too many or too few chromosomes, and if these are fertilized the embryo often dies or exhibits anomalies such as Down’s Syndrome or Klinefelter’s Syndrome. Until now, however, little is known about many of the details of chromosome distribution.
Egg cells of older women more prone to anomalies
The biochemist and her team want to discover how problems in chromosome division arise and whether precision in this process can be increased. Her aim is further to find out why fertility in women decreases with age. Miscarriage is more common in older women and they give birth to children with chromosome anomalies more frequently.
In this context, an important factor is that the quality of immature egg cells – with which every woman is born – decreases with age. But why is that? As Schuh and her team have now discovered, age-related changes in the chromosome architecture seem to play an important role. Her research team has been able to show that matching (homologous) chromosomes in immature egg cells in women over the age of 35 bind together less readily than in younger women.
Before the egg cell divides, homologous chromosomes are arranged in the middle of the cell by so-called spindle fibers. There, they are separated and the spindle apparatus transports one copy each to the two cell poles. “Under the microscope, we were able to observe directly that incompletely paired chromosomes tend to turn during division. Sometimes, they even fall apart too early. In consequence, the spindle fibers can no longer hold the chromosomes correctly and cannot separate them from one another. This increases the probability that the chromosomes are no longer distributed precisely on egg cell and polar body,” the biochemist reports from her latest research results.
“Our findings help us to better understand how fertilizable egg cells are produced. They are also important to explain in molecular detail why children born to older women suffer from chromosome anomalies more often than those born to younger women. This knowledge could in future help women in their late 30s and early 40s to fulfil their desire to have a child,” the new Max Planck Director says.
Melina Schuh studied biochemistry at the University of Bayreuth and in 2008 received her PhD from the European Laboratory of Molecular Biology (EMBL) and the University of Heidelberg. She then moved to Cambridge (England) where she was group leader at MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology from 2009 to the end of 2015. Since January of this year, she is principally employed as Director at the MPI for Biophysical Chemistry. She received a number of awards for her work, including the John Kendrew Award, the Young Scientist Biochemical Society Early Career Award, and the Lister Research Prize. (cr)