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Employment/Membership › Details

Austrian Academy of Sciences–Tanaka E: management, 202404– Scientific Director of IMBA before IMP Vienna + DFG RC of Regenerative Therapies in Dresden


Period Period 2024-04-01
Region Region Wien (Vienna)
  Country Austria
Organisations Organisation IMBA – Institute of Molecular Biotechnology GmbH
  Group Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW)
  Organisation 2 Forschungsinstitut für molekulare Pathologie GmbH (IMP, Research Institute for Molecular Pathology)
  Group Boehringer Ingelheim (Group)
Products Product molecular biology
  Product 2 science
Persons Person Tanaka, Elly (Austrian Academy of Sciences 202404– Scientific Director of IMBA before IMP Vienna + DFG CRT Dresden)
  Person 2 Knoblich, Jürgen (IMBA 201908 Scientific Director)

IMBA – Institute of Molecular Biotechnology GmbH. (3/14/24). "Press Release: Elly Tanaka – IMBA’s New Scientific Director".

Elly Tanaka has been confirmed as IMBA’s Scientific Director. Tanaka will take up her position at IMBA on April 1, 2024.

Today, Heinz Faßmann, President of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, officially presented Elly Tanaka as the new Scientific Director of IMBA. Speaking at a Science Update held at IMBA, Elly Tanaka presented her vision for IMBA.

„IMBA is an outstanding institute founded on basic molecular and cell biology with an outlook to advanced biotechnology. I am honored and excited to take the helm at IMBA following the previous, illustrious directors, Josef Penninger and Jürgen Knoblich. My scientific vision aligns very well with the research topics pursued at IMBA that range from genome dynamics to organ formation and regeneration. These topics are a wonderful basis for collaboration and exploration that will provide important insights into ecology, fertility and tissue renewal."

"By exploiting technological advances in genomics, imaging, and computation we have the opportunity, if we are brave and creative enough, to discover new facets of biology that we did not know about before. I want to support the most adventurous, creative and rigorous minds to solve important problems and to discover the unknown."

Scientific outlook

Tanaka, who has been Senior Group Leader at the Research Institute for Molecular Pathology (IMP) at the Vienna BioCenter and was previously Director of the DFG Research Center of Regenerative Therapies in Dresden, Germany, studies the regeneration of complex body structures. In particular, Tanaka focuses on the molecular and cellular basis of limb and nervous system regeneration. Her model organism, the axolotl Ambystoma mexicanum, displays remarkable regenerative capabilities.

“Over the past years, we have implemented modern molecular methods to identify the stem cells involved in regeneration and the molecular triggers for regeneration. Axolotls show remarkable regenerative capabilities, but studying limb and spinal cord regeneration had previously been largely inaccessible on the molecular level. In this way, we gained new insights into the molecular and cellular foundations of regeneration and have started to study how it is blocked in non-regenerative animals.”

In her current projects, Tanaka seeks to further understand what makes cells able or not able to undergo regeneration. She is extending her studies to assess the functionality of regenerated organs, especially the nervous system control of the regenerated organ. “We are now turning to understanding how limb regeneration integrates with the nervous system, and ask questions such as: How do limb regeneration and innervation go together? How functional are regenerated limbs? On this level, I’m also excited to join IMBA, as I feel at home among the research fields pursued at IMBA. In addition to the research groups studying stem cells, several research groups are focusing on the biology and regeneration of the nervous system. This offers many possibilities for deeper cooperations.”

Strong support of the Austrian Academy of Sciences

IMBA is the largest institute of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Tanaka emphasizes the important role played by the Academy in supporting research at IMBA. “Research at IMBA is possible due to the funding of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Over the past two decades, this support has enabled groundbreaking research at the frontiers of molecular biology. Only with such strong support for blue-sky research can we achieve true advances that deepen our understanding of life. I am looking forward to leading this institute, that has such accomplished faculty, under the auspices of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Both personally and as a scientist, I find the close interaction between natural sciences, social sciences and cultural studies at the academy enriching.”

IMBA only recently celebrated 20 years of research at the institute. IMBA was founded by Josef Penninger, now also at the Medical University of Vienna, who led the institute until 2018, followed by Jürgen Knoblich. Elly Tanaka thanks the previous directors for leading IMBA on a successful path. “I feel very welcome in the illustrious line of IMBA scientific directors. Josef Penninger laid the foundation for IMBA’s success and accompanied the institute on its path to success. I would like to thank Josef for his vision for IMBA, and for his drive to make IMBA and the Vienna BioCenter a world-class location for research in the life sciences. I also thank Jürgen Knoblich who has been a very close colleague since I arrived in Vienna and who has built an amazing cluster of excellence in molecular biology, stem cell and organogenesis research.
Science at IMBA

The dynamic genome

"Alejandro Burga, a young group leader at the institute, exemplifies the courageous, curiosity-driven research approach I want to support at IMBA. His investigations delve into how selfish genes exploit developmental vulnerabilities to propagate in nature, offering profound insights into how novel genes arise, as well as how genetic material is transferred between species. Even more broadly, his research promises to deepen our understanding of how conflicts within our cells and bodies shape Earth’s biodiversity.

The three-dimensional organization of DNA molecules inside cells is essential for the genome’s proper expression, duplication and maintenance. Senior groupleader Daniel Gerlich and his group are performing ground-breaking studies to understand how DNA is organized in chromosomes and how chromosome organization dynamically adapts during the cell cycle and during DNA repair. This study of the genome is beautifully complemented with physical modeling performed by Anton Goloborodko and his group."

"Genomes house not only all genes but also a plethora of parasitic and mobile genetic elements. These must be kept under control to prevent genomic instability. The research group led by senior group leader Julius Brennecke elucidates the molecular mechanisms underlying this control in the germline of animals. Understanding where some of the molecular machines contributing to small-RNA pathways operate, and their dynamic regulation in germ cells of C. elegans, is part of the topic of Shambaditya Saha's group. My own laboratory has shown that the regenerative axolotl is riddled with these hopping gene sequences that has expanded its genome to be ten times bigger than the human genome! We are currently investigating how this expansion might have changed the non-coding part of the genome to bring about new ways of controlling genes. We want to know how these changes allowed a process like regeneration to evolve."

"We are lucky to have Joanna Jachowicz at the institute who is an expert at studying this non-coding part of the genome and who is studying gene regulation at the earliest stages of embryo development. Gene regulation at the early stages of human development, including the implantation of the embryo in the uterus, is highly dynamic – along with the cell rearrangements that set the conditions for a healthy pregnancy and a healthy life. Nicolas Rivron has reconstructed these events from mouse and human stem cells and investigates how gene regulation, including enhancers and hopping genes, have evolved to shape these processes. In this area, we have much more to learn about how the genome exchanges strands, how it is packaged by protein machines or how it is invaded by viruses to bring about the complex sequence of events that we call life. It will be exciting to think about these problems at all scales--how nanometer-scale protein machines work on the genome up to how changes in genomes affect the interactions of cells or organisms with their environment."

Building and re-building the body from stem cells

"How adult tissues form from embryos as they differentiate into tissue-specific stem cells, and how tissues respond to injury and disease is another major pillar of research at IMBA. Sasha Mendjan and his team recapitulated the development of different human heart chambers from stem cells, illuminating how they work together. Through their research, we are gaining further insights into heart vascularization, regeneration, and how human congenital heart disorders emerge. Jürgen Knoblich has pioneered the study of the nervous system from stem cells. With his ability to reconstitute brain development from human stem cells derived from patients, he has been defining how debilitating neural disorders come about, and has discovered previously unknown cell types in the human brain. Noelia Urbán probes the brain once it has been established and how resident adult stem cells change during aging and in response to physiological changes in the body."

"On the other hand, Sofia Grade studies how neural stem cells and neural activity compensate in response to degenerative and traumatic insults. My own laboratory has studied how stem cells regenerate the limb and the spinal cord. We are now starting to study how the regenerating limb interfaces with the nervous system. Understanding how cells and organs communicate with each other, and how cells arrive at "set points" that influence their responses to external stimuli will be key for defining how organs develop, maintain themselves and undergo degeneration versus regeneration."

Strengthening the Vienna BioCenter

The Vienna BioCenter is Austria’s largest life science campus, and brings together six research institutes, including IMBA and the IMP. Tanaka appreciates the collaborative and creative spirit of the Vienna BioCenter. “Becoming scientific director of IMBA means only a small physical move for me and my lab, across a bridge from the IMP to IMBA. The close scientific interaction between IMBA and the IMP, as well as with other research institutes at the Vienna BioCenter, such as the GMI, the Max Perutz Labs, CeMESS and the Faculty of Life Sciences, has provided many impulses for our research. The Vienna BioCenter brings together research in all areas of the life sciences – from structural biology to cell biology, from plant genetics to disease models. This wide range of expertise and interest ensures scientific diversity as well as collaborations across the boundaries of disciplines. It will be exciting to further strengthen these cooperative ties and develop life sciences research here together. One of the strengths of the Vienna BioCenter is the rapidly-growing biotech scene, with more than 40 companies currently situated on campus – a number of them spin-offs from IMBA research. I also appreciate the international atmosphere of a campus that brings together more than 3000 employees from 80 different countries.” IMBA also collaborates with other strong partner institutions. “Together with other top life sciences institutions, such as ISTA, we have synergies to attract international talent to Vienna.”

While strengthening IMBA's standing in fundamental research remains a priority, Tanaka also envisions IMBA playing a crucial role in bolstering science education. “The labs at IMBA and other institutes at the Vienna BioCenter already host a large number of students for research projects. I am motivated to think about how we can further develop programs so that the world-class science conducted at IMBA can support university education and education at the level of Universities of Applied Sciences to attract the brightest minds to the life sciences."

Basic research as a cultural value

Tanaka recognizes IMBA's commitment to excellence in basic research, a core value for the institute. “Many of IMBA’s findings are being further developed for applied science, especially in the organoid field. Although this translation into biotech is an important aspect, creating value for the institute and the location, IMBA’s scientists are first and foremost focused on understanding life, in all its facets. Basic research in and of itself holds value for society. Only from blue-sky thinking, probing interesting questions that lead down unexpected paths, can we truly push the frontier of what we know. Research is creative – and serendipitously creates unexpected applications: like CRISPR-Cas, the well-known genetic scissors, which were uncovered (partly at the Vienna BioCenter) because of scientists’ interest in understanding bacterial defense systems. As scientific director of IMBA, I will continue to advocate for basic research and do everything to support the pursuit of basic research at the institute.“

About Elly Tanaka

Elly Tanaka studied biochemistry at Harvard University, followed by a PhD from the University of California in San Francisco. She first worked on limb regeneration as a postdoctoral researcher with Jeremy Brockes at University College London. Tanaka started her own lab at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden in 1999. In 2008, she became a professor at the Center for Regenerative Therapies Dresden (CRTD), of which she later became director. Since 2016, Tanaka has been Senior Group Leader at the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology (IMP), also at the Vienna BioCenter.

Tanaka is a full member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and was inducted into the prestigious US National Academy of Sciences in 2023. She received the Schrödinger Prize of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and the German Ernst Schering Prize, among others. In 2023, the ERC awarded an Advanced Grant to Elly Tanaka for studying the innervation of regenerating limbs.

Record changed: 2024-04-04


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