The moment when life is made, when cells from two different individuals fuse together to create a new being, is as fascinating a moment as they come. It's at this point that the zygote, the most powerful type of cell, is formed. The zygote is totipotent. From it, every part of an individual will develop, making it is the ultimate stem cell.
How does life start?
Imagine fully understanding the mechanisms that allow two normal cells to create a new cell with all the powers to initiate life. In terms of medical research, this would revolutionise regenerative medicine. And this is exactly what IMBA-group leader Kikuë Tachibana aims to achieve with her newly awarded ERC Consolidator Grant.
“Our aim is to understand how chromatin is reprogrammed--within hours after a sperm fertilizes a mammalian egg--to generate a totipotent one-cell embryo, special in its ability to produce an entire new organism”, says Tachibana, who has pioneered mechanistic cell biology and studies of spatial chromatin organization in zygotes. This question has been one of the ‘holy grails’ of the life sciences and has fascinated (not only) biologists for generations. To this day, hardly anything is known about the underlying mechanism, partly due to the extreme sparsity of mammalian zygotes and their transient existence. Besides, sophisticated methods for the analysis of genome regulation have only recently been developed. Using an interdisciplinary approach, she is studying how chromatin, the material that packs DNA in the cell, is epigenetically reprogrammed, as well as how it spatially reorganises in the new cell, all to facilitate totipotency. This will bring insights into the biggest biological question of them all: how life is made.
About Kikuë Tachibana
Kikuë was educated in Austria, Japan and the UK. She obtained a PhD with Ron Laskey in cell cycle and cancer research from Cambridge University. She continued her postdoctoral research with breakthrough prize laureate Kim Nasmyth, where she developed an assay that pioneered the use of TEV protease technology in the mouse to study cohesin in female germ cells. Since November 2011, Kikuë is a group leader at IMBA. During her time at IMBA she has received an ERC Starting Grant for "Chromosome inheritance from mammalian oocytes to embryos”, the prestigious Walther Flemming Medal and could secure a grant by “the Herzfelder Family Foundation” issued by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF). Moreover, in 2018 she already received a prestigious HFSP program grant, worth 1.2 million dollars, to pinpoint the mechanisms of reprogramming to totipotency, where she is leading an intercontinental consortium, and a prestigious award by the city of Vienna. Kikue is both an EMBO Young Investigator and a full EMBO member. She is a role model for female scientists and mother of two children.