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14.11.2010

Maria Leptin – the first woman scientist at the head of the renowned EMBO

In January 2010, the developmental biologist Prof. Dr. Maria Leptin, internationally known for her work on the signalling pathways that regulate tissue differentiation and morphology during Drosophila embryogenesis, was appointed director of the EMBO, one of the most prestigious science organisations in Europe.

On 2nd November 2010, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel launched the AcademiaNet Internet portal to present outstanding female researchers from German-speaking countries with the aim of increasing their profile and putting them in the running for appointments in top scientific posts. Women are still underrepresented in the top echelons of science; according to information published by the German weekly journal “DIE ZEIT”, only around 12 per cent of the highest-paid positions in German research are held by women.

First woman at the head of EMBO


Prof. Dr. Maria Leptin (© EMBO)

Among the profiles published on AcademiaNet is that of Maria Leptin, who has been director of the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO) in Heidelberg since January 2010, thus achieving exactly what AcademiaNet set out to do: secure leadership positions for women in the most renowned science organisations in Europe. Leptin, who previously held a professorship at the Institute of Genetics at the University of Cologne, explained in an interview with the Cologne university journal that she was very surprised by the offer, but also delighted to be appointed the new director of the EMBO.

Leptin can feel justifiably proud to be the first woman director of the EMBO, succeeding the previous EMBO directors Raymond Appleyard, John Tooze, Frank Gannon and Hermann Bujard. Maria Leptin is very well aware of the difficulties of combining family obligations as a wife and mother of two sons with a high-powered scientific career. One of her numerous functions that she very much enjoys is her work on the board of directors of the Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard Foundation, an organisation that supports talented young women with children in their endeavour to juggle family obligations with the work required of an independent researcher. The foundation's aim is to help prevent science losing excellent talent, and it provides financial support to pay for home help and childcare so that young female scientists can concentrate on their work. 

Maria Leptin’s scientific career

After completing her studies in mathematics and biology at the universities of Bonn and Heidelberg, Maria Leptin joined Fritz Melchers’ laboratory at the Basel Institute of Immunology to do her doctoral thesis on the activation of B-lymphocytes. After receiving her PhD in 1983, she moved on to the Medical Research Council in Cambridge, England, to work as post-doctoral fellow in Michael Wilcox’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology on position-specific (PS) integrins involved in the embryonic development of Drosophila. Integrins not only play a crucial role in regulating tissue differentiation and morphogenesis in Drosophila, but also in vertebrates. This work laid the foundations for her future work in the field of molecular morphogenesis.

Drosophila morphogenesis

The morphogenetic processes in embryos through which single-layered epithelia turn into multilayered tissue, control the folding and invagination of the epithelia or the migration of cell groups or single cells. The cells are fixed in place by the binding of membrane proteins (e.g., integrins) to components of the extracellular matrix (e.g., fibronectin). The directed migration of the cells, their growth and proliferation is controlled by signalling cascades that transfer signals from the receptors on the plasma membrane (e.g., the fibroblast growth factor receptor, FGFR) to DNA-binding transcription factors. Leptin and her group of researchers have made a major contribution to the clarification of these complex signalling pathways. They identified and characterised a protein component of the FGFR signal transduction pathway downstream of FGFR (this is why the protein is called “dof”) that is crucial for the formation of the mesoderm, and hence the heart, as well as for the development of the tracheal network (respiration) during the embryonic development of Drosophila fruit flies. “Dof” binds to the two Drosophila FGF receptors “Heartless” and “Breathless” and is phosphorylated at several tyrosine residues when the receptor is activated. These phosphorylated tyrosine residues bind signalling proteins (for example “Corkscrew” and “Src64B”) which establishes connections with the MPA kinase transduction pathway (MAP: mitogen-activated protein) that transfers signals to the cell nucleus and the DNA. Corresponding signalling pathways and homologous proteins are found in humans, and it is believed that they play a role in the differentiation of tissue and possibly also in the development of tumours.

Maria Leptin continued her research at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) where she established a research group that studies the development of complex cell shapes and the localisation of mRNA and proteins involved in determining the polarity of such cells. A major part of the research involves studying the terminal cells in the respiratory system (trachea) of Drosophila and the empithelium of the embryo during gastrulation.

EMBO director


EMBO building on the campus of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, Heidelberg. (© EMBL)

As the new EMBO director, Maria Leptin is unable to spend a great deal of time in the laboratory. Her work as director of the European Molecular Biology Organisation, which is financially backed by the EMBO's funding body, the European Molecular Biology Conference (EMBC) with delegates from the 27 member states, requires her to travel a lot. The EMBO funds a broad range of workshops, training courses and scholarship programmes for young researchers ("EMBO postdoctoral fellows", "young investigators") in all EU countries. The EMBO publications ("EMBO Journal", "EMBO reports" and "Molecular Systems Biology" which is a joint venture with the journal "Nature") are among the leading international journals of molecular biology. "However, the basis of EMBO's international reputation and its most valuable assets are its members," said Maria Leptin speaking at a recent meeting at which the new 2010 EMBO members were announced.

Since it was established, more than 1,400 leading molecular biologists from Europe and around 90 associated members from non-European countries, including 47 Nobel Laureates, have been awarded lifetime membership of EMBO. More than half of the EMBO's members contribute to EMBO activities by serving on advisory editorial boards of the organisation's scientific journals, on boards in charge of funding programmes and awards, mentoring young researchers, acting as teachers and trainers for workshops and practical courses. Through their involvement in the organisation's activities, the knowledge and expertise they bring as well as their experience and reputation, the chosen researchers help develop new research initiatives and shape the direction of the life sciences in Europe. The most important task of the new EMBO director is the support and coordination of this network of top international researchers.

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EJ - 14.11.2010
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