Name: Dr. Sonja-Verena Albers
Institution: University of Freiburg
Location: Freiburg, Germany
Tell me a bit about how you came to be interested in Archaea and what your work entails.
When I was studying Biology at the University of Würzburg, we were free to do some practical courses outside of the University. I did a practical course for Biochemistry at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Munich and was lucky enough to be in the lab of Wolfram Zillig. Already there I got infected with the “archaea-virus”. During this six weeks course I worked with David Prangishvili on conjugative archaeal plasmids. Although Wolfram Zillig at that time point was already in his early seventies, his enthusiasm about science and especially archaea was very inspiring. Therefore I decided to do my diploma thesis in his lab and followed up Christa Schleper in working on pNOB8, the first described conjugative plasmid of Archaea. Since that moment, I have always worked on archaea, primarily on Sulfolobus. During my PhD thesis, I studied sugar transport in S. solfataricus, and was trying afterwards to establish a genetic system for this organism. In collaboration with Christa Schleper, we developed a very well working expression vector system.
When I was establishing my own research group on “Molecular Biology of Archaea” at the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology in Marburg, Germany, my interest shifted towards understanding how the archaeal cell envelope and surface appendages assemble in archaea. Our work concentrated on the archaeal motility structure, the archaellum. We want to understand how the archaellum expression is regulated, how the structure is assembled and how it propels cells forward. However, we also established an advanced genetic toolbox for S. acidocaldarius, work on DNA transport and the role of protein phosphorylation in this organism.
Looking back at the last 40 years, what would you describe as the most exciting areas of research linked to the study of the Archaea? And where do you see the field headed in the next decade?
I think, everything that we learn about the molecular biology of Archaea is exciting, as mostly Archaea do things differently than Bacteria. But from the start of Carl Woese work, research on Archaea was always strongly linked to understanding the evolution of life, and this link has been even made stronger with the description of the Asgard archaea, which represent a new piece of the puzzle of how eukaryotic cells have evolved from their archaeal ancestor.
Although there are still only a select number of archaeal model organisms for which genetic systems have been developed (methanogens, euryarchaeal hyperthermophiles, halophiles and Sulfolobus species), the possibilities to study the molecular biology of Archaea were never better and the field will now move into the study of archaeal cell biology.
What would you like the public (and general microbiological audience) to appreciate about Archaea?
That on one hand Archaea are the extremists of life, able to withstand really extreme environmental conditions, but on the other, probably in much greater numbers, they are ubiquitous on earth in more standard environments and are even found in the human gut and skin, so we should try to understand what their role in these environments is. Although we have not yet identified an archaeal human pathogen, archaea impact our life on a large scale as e.g. climate change by the methane in the atmosphere, which is solely produced by archaea.
Are there any particular papers that you feel are absolute must reads for those that aren’t necessarily familiar with the field (and briefly, why)?
I’ll start not with a paper but with a video from Dr. Thorsten Allers from the University of Nottingham that, as he puts it, “explores how these fascinating micro-organisms were first discovered – and how they have even made us reconsider our own place on the tree of life.”
Leigh JA et al., 1, Albers SV, Atomi H, Allers T. Model organisms for genetics in the domain Archaea: methanogens, halophiles, Thermococcales and Sulfolobales. FEMS Microbiol Rev. 35(4):577-608 (2011).
Although from 2011, this is a great overview about the different archaeal model organisms that have a genetic system. Great start if you are interested to work in Archaea, as pros/cons of each system are discussed.
Makarova KS et al., Evolution of diverse cell division and vesicle formation systems in Archaea. Nat Rev Microbiol. 8(10):731-41 (2010)
A great analysis of the diversity of cell division systems in Archaea.
Albers SV and Meyer BH, The archaeal cell envelope. Nat Rev Microbiol. 9(6):414-26 (2011)
I apologize for suggesting one of my articles, but it is still the most up-to-date review on the archaeal cell envelope.