From Enhancers to Gene Networks

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Dr. Ezzat El-Sherif does research on gene regulation during embryonic development at the FAU Department of Biology, Division of Developmental Biology. (Image: Ute Wolf)

Interview with Dr. Ezzat El-Sherif, FAU Department of Biology, Division of Developmental Biology

Dr. Ezzat El-Sherif, who was born in Egypt, received a BSc and an MSc in Electronics and Communications Engineering from the Faculty of Engineering at Cairo University, Egypt, in 2004 and 2008 respectively.  In 2013, he received his doctorate in Genetics from the Division of Biology at Kansas State University, USA.

From 2014 until 2015, Dr. El-Sherif worked in Prof. Michael Levine´s Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, USA, before joining Prof. Dr. Martin Klingler´s Lab at FAU in 2015. Since 2016, he is Group Leader at the Division of Developmental Biology at FAU´s Department of Biology.

Dr. El-Sherif, what is your field of research and what sparked your interest in this particular field?

I work on gene regulation during embryonic development. To put this in layman terms: I am trying to understand how genes interact to guide one fertilized egg to successively divide and give rise to many different cells with many different functions; some become eye cells, others kidney cells, and so on. This is a complex process, in which each cell needs to carry out complex computations to decide which function it should mediate, depending on its location in the embryo and the stage of development. Like in the brain where the interaction between groups of neurons is needed to carry out a mental task, a group of genes in each cell interact to decide whether a cell becomes, say, an eye or a kidney cell. Whereas we have a good understanding of how neurons are connected in neural networks, we are far behind in understanding how genes interact with each other in gene networks, especially in animals.

I got interested in this field because it is intellectually stimulating, and, with current advances in methods, is amenable to quantitative analysis, which is something that I enjoy.

Which project are you currently working on?

Genes are connected to each other within gene networks through stretches of DNA called ‘enhancers’. Enhancers are the hubs of gene interactions, and, hence, understanding their functions and how they work is a key to our understanding of gene regulation. My group is working on understanding how enhancers work during a well characterized model problem in development: how animal bodies (including humans) are divided into different units along the head-tail axis; e.g.: head, neck, chest, hip, and so on. My group uses flies and beetles as model organisms to study this problem.

Your BSc and MSc were in Electronics and Communications Engineering, while your PhD was in Genetics. Why did you switch from technology to biology?

In Egypt, the school of Engineering was the place to go if you are good at math and physics, which I was. By the end of my MSc studies in Engineering, somehow I found myself reading a book called “Systems Biology” by Uri Alon, which described biology in terms of signals and circuits, something that resonated so well with my background and seemed exciting. Hence, I approached (and joined) a Computer Science lab in the US working on the modelling/bioinformatics side of the study of gene networks in embryonic development. I then quickly realized that I am interested in the experimental side of biology as well as the modelling side, so I switched to the Genetics Program with the help of my (eventually) PhD supervisor in Biology, Prof. Susan Brown.

However, the switch from a quantitative background to Biology is not so much surprising anymore when we see so many physicists and engineers now switching to biology or working on biological problems. I think having strong quantitative background is becoming a must in biology, something that the Biology Department in FAU was aware of when it launched the Integrated Life Sciences (ILS) program, in which students study Mathematics, quantitative analysis, and computer programming along with Biology.

You spent quite some time in the USA. In 2015, you joined FAU´s Department of Biology. Why did you choose to come to Germany?

Germany is one of the best places to gain independence early on in your career in science. The flip side of this is that obtaining a permanent position/professorship is very hard, due to limited number of open positions. Regarding funding, less stress is given on translational research and more on basic research in Germany, in contrast to the US. This makes Germany a very attractive place for early career researchers working on basic scientific problems, like myself.

What, in your opinion, is special about researching at FAU?

FAU has very strong Medical and Engineering schools. From the perspective of a researcher working on basic biological problems, this provides ample opportunities for application/translational collaborations. In addition, the existence of Max Planck Institute for the Sciences of Light in Erlangen, across the street from the Biology department, provides a good opportunity for biologists and physicists to collaborate on using state-of-the-art imaging techniques to solve biological problems.

Thank you very much for the interview, Dr. El-Sherif.

More information can be found on the homepage of Dr. El-Sherif´s research group.