Tuncay Baubec appointed Professor of Genome Biology & Epigenetics

Leerstoel ontrafelt moleculair verpakkingsmateriaal van DNA

Prof. Tuncay Baubec

Utrecht University has appointed Tuncay Baubec as Professor of Genome Biology & Epigenetics. Baubec will develop broad approaches to study how the molecular ‘packaging’ that surrounds DNA plays a key role in biological processes. His research could pave the way for new developments in fundamental cell biology and cancer research.

Packaging is just as important as the product, many retail analysts believe. In a sense, the same wisdom might be true for genetics. After decades of studying how DNA defines life, biologists are increasingly finding that the molecular packaging of DNA molecules plays a huge role.

Instead of pretty boxes or wrapping paper, DNA is packed in chromatin molecules. The composition and lay-out of this molecular packing material dictates how DNA is translated into proteins, and ultimately how an organism functions.

Packaging errors can potentially derail DNA readout and therefore disrupt entire cell functions

In his new position at Utrecht University, molecular biologist Tuncay Baubec will further unravel how this packaging works. He specifically focuses on how the packaging is influenced by chemical modifications of chromatin and other factors that interact with it. These processes can lead to packaging errors, that could potentially derail DNA readout and therefore disrupt entire cell functions. More fundamental knowledge on these errors might generate new leads to understanding diseases such as cancer.

Overruling DNA

Baubec is regarded as a leading expert in epigenetics, the research field that studies how modifications of chromatin and DNA can turn genes ‘on’ or ‘off’. Already as a student, Baubec became fascinated with the idea that this additional defining layer could play such a key role.

As a student, I was instantly fascinated by the idea of how DNA can be ‘overruled’ by chemical modifications surrounding it

Prof. Tuncay Baubec
Prof. Tuncay Baubec

“I was initially learning the typical rigid rules of genetics, and how DNA dictates life”, says Baubec. “But I was fortunate enough to meet professors who were pioneers in the field of epigenetics. I was instantly fascinated by their idea of how the DNA sequence can be ‘overruled’ by chemical modifications surrounding it.”

Systems biology approach

Now Baubec aims to take epigenetics to a new level, integrating multiple research approaches to understand chemical modifications of chromatin. “Up until now, the epigenetics field was very much focused on individual modifications and specific interactions. But reality is much more complex, and we need to consider the context of each modification of the genome. Looking at just one gene or modification has led to generic conclusions that were not always correct.”

Instead, Baubec incorporates knowledge and techniques from different research areas, including genomics, biochemistry, and computational biology to create a more quantitative and complete picture.

Synthetic proteins that recognize and repair packaging error could also restore cancer cell behaviour back to normal.

Synthetic proteins

One of Baubec’s goals is to identify proteins that can read specific modifications that occur in the biochemical layers surrounding the DNA molecule. This knowledge could be used to create synthetic proteins that detect packaging errors or even them, to restore a normal gene activity in the cell. This could potentially be used as a new target in cancer research, restoring cancer cell behaviour back to normal.

Utrecht research ties

Collaborating with other research groups across the Utrecht Science Park could be very fruitful, says Baubec. “There are several groups that I’m very excited to work with. Not just groups at Utrecht University, but also at UMC Utrecht, The Princess Máxima Center, and the Hubrecht Institute. Combining our skills allows us to research promising epigenetic modifications that have never been studied before.”

This field mixes a lot of approaches from different disciplines, and that makes it very attractive for students as well

Prof. Tuncay Baubec
Prof. Tuncay Baubec

With Baubec’s new professorship at Utrecht University, students will also benefit from his lab’s expertise. Baubec aims to lead students into state-of-the-art knowledge on epigenetics. “I’m also eager to inspire students by showing how diverse epigenetics research is”, says Baubec. “It’s not just hardcore biochemistry or genetics. This field mixes a lot of approaches from different disciplines, and that makes it very attractive for students as well.”

CV Tuncay Baubec

Tuncay Baubec is Professor of Genome Biology and Epigenetics at Utrecht University. He obtained his PhD from the University of Vienna and the Gregor Mendel Institute in Vienna. For his postdoctoral research, Baubec moved to the Friedrich Miescher Institute in Basel. In 2015, Baubec started his own research group at the University of Zurich, investigating how proteins can recognize epigenetic modifications in DNA. In 2019 he received an ERC Consolidator Grant and was selected as an EMBO Young Investigator.