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.

In investigating the mechanisms and forces that determine cell shape in Drosophila, the Leptin group studies two cell types. They look at how the cells at the tips of the fruit fly’s tracheal system rearrange their components as they grow rapidly and branch out to carry air to the animal’s tissues. And at the tissue level, the group investigates how forces generated by single cells give the embryo’s ventral furrow its final shape. The group also studies medaka and zebrafish to understand how signals from damaged cells are recognised by the innate immune system. They are developing methods to assay immune and stress responses in real time as the fish’s cells encounter pathogens and stress signals.

Groups in this unit

Heard group

Epigenetic mechanisms in development and disease

Hentze group

RNA biology, metabolism and molecular medicine

Leptin group

Cell shape and morphogenesis: subcellular and supracellular mechanisms


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