Directors' Research

The Directors' Research Unit covers thematically distinct research groups, headed by EMBL and EMBO’s leadership.

The Heard group combines genetic engineering and genomics with a range of cell biology and imaging approaches to study the role of chromatin modifications, chromosomal organisation and non-coding RNAs in gene regulation and expression. In particular, the Heard group focusses on understanding the processes of X-chromosome inactivation. This includes the role of Xist RNA and its partners; the cis-acting DNA sequences and trans-acting factors; the mechanisms of gene escape and the functional relevance of escapees; and autosomal monoallelic gene expression in development and disease.

The Hentze group combines biochemical and systems-level approaches to investigate the connections between gene expression, cell metabolism, and their role in human disease. Key goals of the group include collaborative efforts to: uncover the biological roles of unexpected RNA-binding proteins (‘enigmRBPs’) in cell metabolism, differentiation, and development; explore, define, and understand REM networks; help elucidate the role of RNA metabolism in disease, and to develop novel diagnostic and therapeutic strategies based on this knowledge; and to understand the molecular mechanisms and regulatory circuits underlying physiological iron homeostasis.

The Watt group is investigating how adult stem cell renewal and lineage selection are controlled by reciprocal interactions with the cellular microenvironment, or niche. The focus of our research is mammalian skin, which we study using human cells in culture and genetically modified mice. We have previously found markers to isolate epidermal stem cells and elucidated several of the signalling pathways that regulate stem cell behaviour, two of which – integrin and Notch signalling – are a focus of our current research. We are also exploring the remarkable plasticity of epidermal stem and differentiated cells and ways in which epidermal-dermal communication controls skin homeostasis. We make extensive use of single-cell analysis and are defining how biophysical cues elicit transcriptional responses in epidermal stem cells. Having demonstrated the existence of different skin fibroblast lineages in mice, we are analysing different subpopulations of human skin fibroblasts, with the goal of developing new strategies to treat skin scarring.

Groups in this unit

Heard group

Epigenetic mechanisms in development and disease

Hentze group

RNA biology, metabolism and molecular medicine


Research jobs

See more jobs

The 74 research groups at EMBL are organised into nine units spanning six European sites.