The human genome harbors large segments that offer no obvious benefit and can potentially even cause disease. Nevertheless, these areas are copied and maintained every time a cell divides, which means a considerable effort and energy cost for the body. What is the evolutionary advantage of preserving these areas? This is the question that virologist and immunologist Prof. Rayk Behrendt from the Cluster of Excellence ImmunoSensation2 at the University of Bonn is addressing. For his research, he now receives the prestigious Consolidator Grant of the European Research Council (ERC). The selected project of the Bonn professor will be funded with about 2 million euros.
The human genome is a constantly evolving database that can look back on a history spanning millions of years. Viruses able to integrate into the genome have left their traces in particular: Almost half of our genome is now occupied by ancient viral sequences. Under certain conditions, these sequences can be mobilized and jump from one location to another or copy themselves. However, the majority of these appear to be useless and even potentially dangerous to our health. "In recent years, it has been clearly shown that such so-called endogenous retroelements are associated with the development of inflammatory diseases and inflammation-induced aging, and can also cause cancer," says Prof. Rayk Behrendt of the Institute of Clinical Chemistry and Clinical Pharmacology at the University Hospital Bonn. "We are therefore interested in understanding potential benefits of maintaining these elements in our genomes."
Do retroelements train our immune system?
Endogenous retroelements are only sporadically transcribed in healthy cells. However, they could play an important role in enabling the immune system by activating intracellular nucleic acid sensors that alert the cell to viral infections. "We are particularly intrigued by the question of how the transcription of retroelements is regulated in response to everyday stress situations such as viral infections or DNA damage," says Rayk Behrendt. In mice, it will be investigated how retroelements are sensed by the innate immune system and if this has functional consequences for establishing protective and pathologic immunity. The researchers also want to break new ground technically and develop a new so-called deep-sequencing workflow that will allow them to determine the exact genomic origin of each retroelement.
Promising young researchers for the University of Bonn
Rayk Behrendt completed his PhD at the Robert Koch Institute and the Humboldt University of Berlin. He then conducted research at the Institute of Immunology at the Technical University of Dresden, where he led the research group "Cell-intrinsic Immunity and Genome Defense" from 2017. Since March of this year, Behrendt is Professor for Nucleic Acid Immunity at the University of Bonn and the University Hospital Bonn. The now acquired ERC Consolidator Grant is awarded to first-class young scientists to support them in consolidating their scientific independence. "I have been intrigued by the underlying question of the project for quite a long time. I am super grateful for this award, which gives me the opportunity to really push our boundaries in this field,” says Behrendt. “I am happy that it happens right now, after I joined the exceptional scientific community at the Institute of Clinical Chemistry and Clinical Pharmacology and the Cluster of Excellence ImmunoSensation2 at the University of Bonn.” Rayk Behrendt is also a member of the Transdisciplinary Research Area "Life and Health".
Prof. Dr. Rayk Behrendt
Institute for Clinical Chemistry and Clinical Pharmacology of the University Hospital Bonn
Phone: +49 228 287 51120
Prof. Dr. Rayk Behrendt from the Institute for Clinical Chemistry and Clinical Pharmacology of the U ...
© David Fußhöller / University Hospital Bonn
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Biologie, Chemie, Medizin
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