Daria Martin, Schering Stiftung Projektraum

 

Friedmund Neumann Prize 2015

Dr. Nina Henriette Uhlenhaut

Helmholtz Zentrum München – German Research Center for Environmental Health

for her outstanding research on the molecular genetic mechanisms of endocrinological and metabolic diseases

Dr. Nina Henriette Uhlenhaut

Vita

In the 1990s, Dr. Nina Henriette Uhlenhaut studied biotechnology at the Technical University of Braunschweig and received a Master of Science degree from Georgia Tech in Atlanta. The research for her thesis was performed at the Salk Institute in San Diego. That is where she became interested in genomic mechanisms of gene regulation, which she continued to study during her PhD at EMBL in Heidelberg. Dr. Uhlenhaut is especially interested in understanding transcriptional repression, which is why she returned to the Salk Institute in San Diego after graduating with a PhD in 2007. There she joined the lab of Dr. Ron Evans. She continued her research projects, which revolve around gene regulation by nuclear hormone receptors, as a postdoc at the MDC in Berlin. Hormone receptors remain the focus of her independent Emmy Noether group “Molecular Endocrinology” at the Helmholtz Zentrum in Munich, which she has been heading since 2013. Dr. Uhlenhaut is married and has two children.

Research Projects

Dr. Henriette Uhlenhaut is a molecular biologist who is interested in the gene regulatory mechanisms that underlie our body’s hormonal responses. She mainly focuses on gene repression, studying how genes are turned off.

Dr. Uhlenhaut was able to show that a single gene, the forkhead transcription factor Foxl2, is permanently required to prevent transdifferentiation of ovaries into testes. Throughout life, female mice depend on Foxl2 together with the estrogen receptors to shut off male genes. This revolutionary finding was not only of central importance for the field of reproductive biology, but was a significant contribution towards the understanding of cellular plasticity in general.

Another example for the importance of gene repression for cellular function is the anti-inflammatory potential of glucocorticoids. These steroid hormones are both the most widely used anti-inflammatory drugs in clinical use today and powerful metabolic regulators. Using cutting-edge genomic approaches (so-called next generation sequencing), Dr. Uhlenhaut demonstrated that the glucocorticoid receptor binds directly to DNA to turn off inflammatory genes. These results reversed a long-standing dogma in the field stating that the glucocorticoid receptor does not use DNA binding but protein-protein interactions with other transcription factors to exert its anti-inflammatory properties. This is especially relevant since the adverse side effects of glucocorticoid treatment such as weight gain and diabetes are mainly linked to the activation of metabolic genes, whereas the desired anti-inflammatory actions are based on the silencing of immune genes.

In her Emmy Noether group, Dr. Uhlenhaut uses molecular genetic tools to further characterize hormone receptors that play a role in glucose and lipid metabolism.

Photo: N. H. Uhlenhaut, © Melanie Wehnert, Fotostudio Lux in Berlin