Ruth Lehmann

Ruth Lehmann

Ruth Lehmann, chair of the Department of Cell Biology and director of the Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine at New York University, has been chosen to present the Keith Porter Lecture on Sunday, December 9, at 3:15 pm at the 2018 ASCB|EMBO Meeting in San Diego. Lehmann’s research revolves around germ cells—the stem cells for the next generation—and her talk will no doubt touch on some of her latest observations in that fascinating realm.

Lehmann’s model organism is Drosophila, and in her research she hopes to discover more about the biology of the germ cells in this creature. The mechanisms by which germ cells are set aside from somatic cells during embryogenesis remain a mystery.

“Despite their critical role, we still know little about how germ cell fate is initiated and maintained and how germ cells evade the ultimately deadly fate of the soma,” Lehmann writes. “In contrast to somatic cell fates, no master-regulator transcription factor has been identified that uniquely specifies germ cell fate; instead RNA regulation plays a prominent and highly conserved role in germ cells. As germ cells ‘make’ germ cells, the work in our lab follows the germ line life cycle: We are interested in how germ plasm assembles, in the mechanisms that separate germ cells from somatic cells, in how germ cells migrate through the embryo to reach the somatic gonad, and in how germ cell fate is maintained and protected throughout larval and adult life in order to generate a new organism. Because of their unique ability to literally renew themselves, our research takes advantage of the opportunities germ cell biology pose to understand the cellular mechanisms of totipotency and the challenges associated with immortality.”

The role of RNA biology in the germ cell life cycle is of particular interest to Lehmann.

“We are interested in how RNAs localized to germ plasm are regulated and contribute to germ cell formation and fate, how gene expression is regulated during germ cell development, and how the reproductive success of individual primordial germ cells (PGCs) is determined,” Lehmann explains.

Using in vitro assays and live cell imaging, Lehmann’s team has been able to track the journey of PGCs to their final stop in the gonads and the mechanisms involved in protecting the germ cell genome from generation to generation.

“Germ cells give rise to a new generation, thus the integrity of the germ cell genome has to be protected while at the same time there has to be room for improvement via mutation and recombination,” Lehmann explained. “We study how host mechanisms evolved to protect the genome against transposable elements and how other intruders such as bacteria influence germ line function and reproductive success.”

Mary Spiro

Mary Spiro is ASCB's Science Writer and Social Media Manager.