Stand Back, Offspring does Science (Part 1)

by the Offspring Team

This year we decided for a similar, but different system. In the beginning of the year the Offspring team decided on topics that we felt are important and we would like to discuss further. Over the year we will have special editions about topics that we want to write about.

Check out Part 2 of the Stand Back, Offspring does Science here:

In the last two years, the Offspring has covered diversity-, discrimination- and inclusion-related topics in the academic world and adapted the mainly UK & US based phenomenon of the Awareness Months initiatives. Until last year we covered topics like mental health, LGBTQ+, ethnic diversity, disability and women in STEM, often collaborating with the Equal Opportunities group of the Max Planck PhDnet. more

Sincerely,
The Offspring Team

Merle Ücker

The deep-sea is an extreme environment, characterised by complete darkness and a lack of nutrition. Despite these challenging conditions, we can observe diverse communities of miraculous animals that adapted well to this environment. They can grow to large abundances, especially at hydrothermal vents, which are fissures of the seafloor that release heated water enriched in chemicals.

One successful animal group living at such vents are Bathymodiolus mussels. Although they look much like blue mussels, they have a remarkable feature which distinguishes them from their shallow-water relatives: Inside their gill cells, they harbour bacteria that can use chemical energy from the vents to produce nutrition for the mussels. In return, the bacteria live in a safe and stable environment with a constant nutrient supply.

During my PhD, I focus on this symbiosis in more detail. I investigate the population structure of Bathymodiolus mussels to understand how they populated new habitats and evolved together with their symbionts. Further, I study the role that symbiosis plays in species formation by analysing samples from a mussel hybrid zone. Last, I look at the bacterial community in the water column from which the symbionts are taken up, to find out what mechanisms are involved in symbiont acquisition: Is it limited by environmental factors or do the mussels actively select their symbionts? By investigating these questions in our model, I hope to better understand some of the mechanisms that seem to be universal in many symbioses, regardless of whether  it is in the deep-sea or in the human body.

Vivek Devulapalli

Humanity has come a long way from the time when plants and stones were the only things we used for survival. Think of the materials that are used to make your clothes, toothbrush, piano, a microscope or a laptop. Everything around us is made up of some material that was not found in a natural state on Earth. And yet materials as a whole is the one thing that human  beings take for granted the most.

Understanding the behaviour of one such class of materials, known as metals, all the way down to the atomic scale is an exciting thing to do a PhD on. Titanium is a wonder material which is used to make aeroplanes and is put inside your body if you break a bone. It will not rust like Iron would and will not fracture like Aluminium would. When you put these materials in a microscope to enlarge them a million times, you start to understand why each one of them behave so differently to one another. Metals are composed of what are known as grains. The regions between these grains are called grain boundaries. They form a 3-dimensional network traversing all across the bulk of the material. They determine the fracture strength, toughness, diffusivity, thermal and electrical conductivity, and corrosion resistance of the material. Understanding the influence of the structure and the chemistry of these boundaries on the properties of titanium using transmission electron microscopy is what my PhD is all about!

Srinath Ramkumar

Image courtesy: facebook.com/pedromics

We all live in the matrix.  Yes, you heard me right. The matrix we live in is not the one with green falling letters on a black background.  It is the matrix our cells live in to make up a tissue, which in turn makes the organ and therefore the organism. This matrix is known as the Extracellular Matrix (ECM).  My work revolves around uncovering what hidden secrets this extracellular matrix harbors, especially in the heart. I look into the role of certain ECM proteins, which provide both structural and functional support to the tissue.  One of the major causes of death in humans is the inability to regain heart function after a heart attack caused by a myocardial infarction.

The ECM of the heart is a highly regulated space with a very particular and complex structure, thereby it demands a highly focussed and targeted research into the various processes which can help us regenerate the heart after injury.  I use the zebrafish as a model organism to research the role of these genes. The zebrafish is an amazing vertebrate model organism due to its unique capability to regenerate multiple organs of which the heart is one. Hence, my goal is to understand how the zebrafish regenerates its heart and how certain ECM proteins play a role in this process, and eventually, how we can translate this into a tangible solution for mankind's woes.

Maria Eichel

Not only in my work with the Offspring, but also within my PhD project I focus on communication - but on a much smaller level. To speak, move your fingers, and walk, every living organism needs proper signal propagation along nerves (axons). In most living organisms that have vertebrae, including us humans, this is achieved by wrapping a fatty sheath called myelin around axons. Imagine the insulation of an electrical cable through which electricity is transported to heat up your food or power your computer - that's the simplified principle of nerve conduction velocity along myelinated axons. And you do not want to miss your functioning computer, am I right?

But what does this have to do with communication? Myelin is made by specialized cells called oligodendrocytes in the central nervous system (brain & spinal cord) and Schwann cells in the peripheral nervous system (all the other nerves spreading to your fingers and toes). Both cell types interact and communicate with the underlying axon about what each of them needs for proper functioning and growth. For example: which food (metabolites) does a cell need? Are the cells healthy or not? ? And especially, how fast does the signal need to be transmitted in a specific part of the body and in the brain?  How much growth is needed to provide this? Just think about your electrical charging devices and you will notice that quite often the one for your phone is way smaller than the one for your laptop.

For my PhD, I investigate the close interactions between those cell types and how Schwann cells tell the axons to stop growing in size - because size does matter in a highly regulated system like our nervous system.

Angela Aguinaldo

No day passes by when we do not hear about transnational crime and/or terrorism in the news.  Indeed, crime does not recognize national borders any longer. This transnational nature of crime not only poses a continuous challenge to law enforcement authorities, but also emphasizes the need for effective and improved transnational and/or international cooperation to enable quicker, more efficient prevention, investigation, and prosecution of transnational crime and terrorism.

In line with this, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the European Union (EU) made a commitment to each other during the 50th ASEAN Anniversary celebrations to foster stronger cooperation in criminal matters.  Both regional organizations have a strong political regional position against transnational crime and terrorism. On one hand, ASEAN and its member states have declarations and agreements to deal with these matters. While it does not have an extradition treaty, it has a mutual legal assistance treaty that allows a member state to request for the transmission and collection of evidence from another member state. On the other hand, the EU has a plethora of instruments and agreements covering cooperation in criminal matters such as the Directive for European Investigation Order, which allows a member state to issue an “order” for the transmission of evidence found in another member state.

My study revolves around analyzing how cooperation or a possible inter-regional mutual legal assistance can be made between and within the ASEAN and the EU.  I mainly use a comparative criminal law approach, which means I am comparing the regional organizations with each other, including two member states within each regional organization.  My study also aims to look beyond what is written in the books by looking into the law in practice. This means that I have had the opportunity to interview selected practitioners in the field in order to understand how it is truly in practice.  This gives a holistic picture and more opportunities to come up with recommendations that are grounded in realistic and practical terms.

Jun Yong Kim

For the past century, we have witnessed a dramatic extension of mankind’s lifespan worldwide. For example, the average lifespan of the world was 30 in 1900, while increased to have been 48 in 1950 and reached 71.5 in 2014. However, such an unprecedented lifespan extension makes us susceptible to many disorders in the late years of our lifetime, such as arthritis, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Thus, ageing itself is a great risk factor of age-related disorders. This urges us to understand the process of ageing, thereby finding interventions to reduce the frailty period at the late years, or increasing the healthspan. As we get older, the cells which comprise our body also become old and lose the ability to proliferate permanently. These old cells are called senescent cells and they give rise to a proinflammatory niche which causes many age-related disorders mentioned above. I’m studying how we can eliminate or modulate the inflammatory response of these senescent cells in our body. I particularly focus on mitochondria as a potential modulator of the response, an organelle in every cell of us, which is often referred to as a powerhouse of cell since it generates the cellular energy currency, ATP. Of note, for the past few decades, the role of mitochondria has been expanded far beyond the mere powerhouse to the regulator of many cellular activities. However, little is known about the role of mitochondria in the senescent cell. Understanding of the mitochondrial role in cellular senescence will broaden our repertoire to target the proinflammatory output of the senescent cell, thereby achieving a healthy ageing process.

Barbara Šafarić

Each cell of our body contains around 2 meters of genetic information, DNA, tightly packed and organised to occupy a space inside of the cell’s nucleus that is smaller than 6 µm in diameter. My group is interested in understanding the logistics of DNA replication and how a massive molecular machine, composed out of dozens of protein complexes that carry out replication of DNA, is organised. Taking advantage of state-of-the-art  microscopes and fluorescent labelling techniques of DNA and proteins, we are able to observe molecular events in real time, spying on proteins doing their job on single molecules of DNA. I never thought I would end up working on this project.

To be honest, I always wanted to be an astronaut. You might say that didn’t really turned out right. Instead of exploring the unknowns of the Universe far, far away, I have a chance to explore the unknowns of a single molecule universe. Microscope instead of telescope, individual DNA and protein molecules instead of galaxies and planets, nanometres instead of light years. Otherwise, it is pretty much the same thing (at least, that’s what I keep telling myself).

You have to agree - what we see with the microscope does look like a starry sky, doesn’t it?

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