Eileen Furlong explores the building blocks of life – SWR Knowledge















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We have known the structure of DNA for about 70 years. A lot has happened since then: Gene manipulation is now part of everyday life in laboratories, there are genetically modified foods, and the first gene therapies are on the market. You might think we now know how the genome works. But we are far from that. One researcher who knows this well is Eileen Furlong.

Enhancers that affect fetal development

Eileen Furlong researches so-called enhancers at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg.
Most people have probably never heard of these parts of the genome, and even experts have long underestimated the importance of enhancers.



Enhancers may also play an important role in the development of cancer cells.


SWR



SWR Knowledge / Veronica Simon


“Reinforcers were discovered 30 years ago, but people didn’t understand how important they were. Some examples were known where changes in enhancers lead to disease, but now we know that most mutations that lead to human disease are enhancers. It is becoming increasingly clear how important they are. Enhancers”.

Today we know that changes in enhanced gene regions can lead to the development of cancer cells. But it is also important for embryonic development. If something goes wrong here, serious damage or deformations can result: for example, hands with more than five fingers.



Enhancers also play an important role in embryonic development.  (Photo: Imago Pictures, Imago)

Enhancers also play an important role in embryonic development.


imago pictures



imago


Enhancers affect gene activation

But what is behind this term “enhancer”?
A journey into the depths of genetics: how we look, how cells are formed, all this information is stored in our genes, in our DNA. Every cell has the same genes in the nucleus. But they are not all active at the same time. That would be total chaos.

All cells in our bodies contain the same genes – yet they differ greatly in form and function.
Some cell types need flexibility and pump.
Others have to be consistent and hard.



To activate individual gene segments, the so-called

So-called “enhancers” are required to activate individual gene segments.


SWR



SWR Knowledge / Veronica Simon


This is only possible because different sets of genes are active in different cells – exactly those required for a very particular cell type. But how does a cell choose which genes should be active? This is where the boosters come in.

They are the same sections of DNA. In order to have an effect, some complexes, the so-called transcription factors, must bind to the enhancers. Together they activate the genes. So boosters help each cell use exactly the genetic equipment it needs.



Eileen Furlong received the Leibniz Prize for her research on specific genetic structures - enhancers.  (Photo: SWR, SWR Knowledge/Veronica Simon)

Eileen Furlong received the Leibniz Prize for her research on specific genetic structures – enhancers.


SWR



SWR Knowledge / Veronica Simon


Researchers today know that reinforcers exist, and they also know what they do, but they don’t know how:

Research on fruit flies provides important insights

“You might think that everything happens near a gene. But enhancers can be very, very far from a gene. The big surprise was how far this goes, how complex it is, how many enhancers a gene can have. The question is: How does it combine? Gene and enhancer? The more we learn, the clearer it becomes for what we don’t know.”



Fruit flies are important for genetic research.  (Photo: Imago Pictures, Imago)

Fruit flies are important for genetic research.


imago pictures



imago


After studying in Dublin and a research residency at Stanford, Furlong has headed the Department of Genomic Biology at EMBL in Heidelberg since 2019. Your research object is here: the fruit fly Drosophila. Thousands of strains of flies are stored here on the shelves – each with different genetic characteristics.

Flies are cheap experimental animals, they eat the yeast mixture in their tubes and reproduce quickly. W: They are not very different from us – at least from a geneticist’s point of view.



Genes have been searched for for a long time.  I still did not understand everything.  (Photo: SWR, SWR Knowledge/Veronica Simon)

Genes have been searched for for a long time. I still did not understand everything.


SWR



SWR Knowledge / Veronica Simon


“We share 70 percent of the genes with them. This means that if you understand what these genes do in the fly, you can often pass them on to our bodies. Of course we are a little more complex, but the general principle is the same.”

Basic research is also important

Eileen Furlong never dreamed of a job other than that of a researcher. To be successful here, you need a lot of persistence, she says. Especially when you’re looking for a very particular field of research like you did with boosters.



Eileen Furlong received the Leibniz Prize for her research on specific genetic structures - enhancers.  (Photo: dpa Bildfunk, picture alliance / dpa / Eileen Furlong)

Eileen Furlong received the Leibniz Prize for her research on specific genetic structures – enhancers.


photo radio dpa



Photo Alliance / dpa / Eileen Furlong


“It really is basic research. But this is very important. In many countries, research is primarily funded that has a direct benefit to the patient. And of course this is important research. But we also need to understand the basic principles behind it!”

Molecular biology has made tremendous progress in recent decades, and Furlong has benefited from this as well. Today, for example, you can examine the genes of only one cell of the fetus – in the past you always had a genetic mixture of all cells. This allows for a more detailed analysis.



Eileen Furlong (right) and her team research the genetic structures that enable differentiation of specific cell types - enhancers.  (Photo: SWR, SWR Knowledge/Veronica Simon)

Eileen Furlong (right) and her team research the genetic structures that enable differentiation of specific cell types – enhancers.


SWR



SWR Knowledge / Veronica Simon


There are also new tools such as the CRISPR/Cas gene scissors, state-of-the-art imaging and artificial intelligence to analyze massive amounts of data. These new technologies allow for a closer look at furlong reinforcers. And you probably won’t know soon enough that it exists and what it does, but also how it works.

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