Anna Akhmanova, ERC Synergy Grant

As a child I used to read adventure novels and dream of becoming an explorer. And now I am an explorer – but on a much smaller scale.
prof. dr. Anna Akhmanova

Internal organisation and dynamics of cells

Akhmanova conducts research into the structure and function of cells in the human body. "This is sometimes called the century of the cell. We are rapidly learning more about cellular components, which we can now visualize using advanced microscopes." The European Research Council (ERC) awarded Akhmanova together with her collaborator TU Delft physicist Marileen Dogterom a Synergy Grant of 7.1 million euros. Akhmanova aims to gain a greater understanding of the internal organisation and dynamics of cells. "We are trying to unravel molecular interactions inside the cell."

Akhmanova: "The main focus of our research is microtubules, microscopic tubes that pull apart the newly duplicated DNA during cell division. We are studying the way in which microtubules are organized, the role of various regulators in their formation and their interactions with other parts of the cell. The general aim is to acquire knowledge about cell organisation and dynamics that determine cell shape and the ability of cells to move and divide." Akhmanova and Dogterom lead a close-knit interdisciplinary research team. Akhmanova has the expertise needed to study cellular dynamics at molecular level and at high resolution. Physicist Dogterom specialises in microfabrication and can perform reconstructions of individual cellular components.  Akhmanova: "We are working together to develop theories on how cells function and then test them in vitro. For example, we manipulate the molecules using blue light and study whether the cells respond in the way we expect."

A journey of discovery

This kind of science takes time and calls for real perseverance. "It is a journey of discovery – most experiments are unsuccessful the first few times", laughs Akhmanova, "but we are slowly but surely revealing how cells work." She enjoys teaching students and young researchers about this reality of science. "The fact that you can inspire young researchers to make discoveries of their own is something that I will always find exciting. People have a natural curiosity about their environment and a thirst for knowledge. It is great sharing knowledge with them and helping them to learn. In my view, synergy between research and education is an essential ingredient of any university."

Standing on the shoulders of giants

Akhmanova's ERC project is part of a much wider range of research being conducted at Utrecht University. For example, developmental biologist Sander van den Heuvel studies how microtubule networks are positioned. Akhmanova also works closely with biophysicist Lucas Kapitein, who has developed a method for using light to control cellular organisation. Being a part of a large collaborative network has both scientific and practical advantages. For example, prior to this ERC Grant, lots of proteins were purified which the researchers are now using to conduct in vitro experiments. Akhmanova: "It is time to move forward. To achieve this, I am using the knowledge and methods that others have developed over the last decades. To quote the words of Newton, I am 'standing on the shoulders of giants'." 

The researchers are even capable of artificially reconstructing certain parts of cells. "That is impressive, but not the aim in itself", explains the cellular biologist.

"If you can build something, you understand how it fits together and can investigate how it works. For example, if one protein inhibits cell growth and another stimulates it, what is it that determines which effect gains the upper hand?"

Science Fiction

When asked which new horizons she envisages for her specialist field in the next few decades, Akhmanova responds cautiously: "That is not easy to predict. Ultimately, however, it would be interesting if we were able to control how cells grow and divide. Just imagine being able to curb the growth of a cancer cell. Theoretically, it would even be possible, if someone lost a finger, to regrow it in the lab. In the past, things like that were the domain of science fiction, but they might soon be just around the corner."

Text: Youetta Visser