Scientist of the month: Asifa Akhtar

Asifa Akhtar tells us about the importance of dosage compensation and why she became an Epigenetics researcher.

Brief biography

Asifa Akhtar, PhD

Asifa Akhtar obtained her bachelors degree in biology at University College London (UCL) in 1993. This was followed by her PhD in 1998 from the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London, where she studied transcription regulation in Richard Treisman’s laboratory. She continued in the field of chromatin regulation as a postdoctoral fellow at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), Heidelberg and the Adolf Butenandt Institute, Munich in Peter Becker’s laboratory until 2001.

From 2001, she led her own research as a group leader at EMBL. In 2009, her laboratory moved to the Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics, Freiburg. She is currently managing director at the Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics and is heading the department of chromatin regulation. Her laboratory primarily studies chromatin and epigenetic mechanisms, especially focusing on the regulation of the X chromosome by the phenomenon of dosage compensation in Drosophila melanogaster.

In 2008, she received the European Life Science Organization (ELSO) award for significant contribution in the field and in 2013 she was elected as an EMBO member.

What got you first excited about science?

I was always interested in biology, but if I think back to when I really thought doing research would be great is during my final year project at the end of the Bachelor’s degree at UCL. Planning experiments and testing out hypotheses gave me a real thrill and that has not stopped ever since!

What made you focus on epigenetics research?

X chromosome regulation is among the classical epigenetic phenomena. Understanding how different phenotypes can be generated from a single genome is very interesting as it shows multiple facets as well as complexity underlying regulation impacting on health.

I like the breadth encompassing epigenetics research and hope to provide some contribution in unraveling at least some aspects of this complexity.

How did you first become interested in dosage compensation?

I became interested in the phenomenon of dosage compensation during my postdoctoral research in the laboratory of Peter Becker. It was a great time to embark on this project and take a biochemical approach to tackle this problem in fruit flies.

Why is this research important?

Dosage compensation is an important biological phenomenon. How mere two fold differences can lead to a life or death decision for the organism make it already an extremely interesting biological process to understand.

But, more importantly, it is a great system to study the effects of chromatin based regulation and involvement of long non-coding RNA in epigenetic regulation.

Taking a long-term look, what do you see as a key step for understanding the epigenome?

I think it will be really interesting to unravel the mechanisms contributing towards inheritance of epigenetic information to the next generation. Especially studying the diversity at the single-cell level is an extremely exciting prospect for the future.

Any words of wisdom for young researchers just starting in epigenetics?

It’s a great time to work on epigenetics research, many molecules are known but how specificity is achieved remains a mystery. There are also exciting avenues to explore the interplay between the coding and non-coding part of our genome.

Recent technological advances have gained great momentum to study highly complex processes at global and at single gene level. Moreover, epigenetic therapy could provide a great avenue in future to combat disease and contribute to personalized medicine. Therefore, the future is bright for epigenetics research.

What would you be working on if you weren't a scientist?

Hard to tell! I am not a good housewife!

One thing you could not live without (inside or outside the lab)?

Outside the lab: My family with two children.

Inside the lab: The excitement of the new unexpected results and trying to make sense of it all with my team.


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