Inspiring, Powerful, Top-notch. Dr. Asifa Akhtar receives 2021 Leibniz Prize

Dr Asifa Akhtar has been selected to receive the most distinguished prize in Germany: The Leibniz Prize! The award has acknowledged and estimated her huge breakthrough work in the field of Cell-Biology and it’s mechanisms of epigenetic gene regulation, the prize consists of a €2.5 million research funding.

With her Freiburg team, Asifa Akhtar is investigating epigenetic mechanisms that act in addition to the genes in the cells – and thus help determine which and how genetic information is used. One focus is on molecules that change the chromatin, i.e., the packaging of the DNA, and thus play an important role in controlling gene activity. “I feel incredibly honored to receive this prize. Above all, I am grateful to my former and current lab members; their dedication and hard work made this award possible,” said Asifa Akhtar.

Dr Asifa Akhtar

The DFG substantiate its decision, among other things, with Asifa Akhtar’s “groundbreaking contribution to the understanding of X chromosome regulation, also known as dosage compensation.” Since males and females differ in the number of their X chromosomes, this mechanism ensures that both sexes shed the same amount of genes encoded on the X chromosomes. If this does not happen, severe cellular defects can occur. What are the critical molecular factors achieving dosage compensation? How do they interact, and do they also have additional functions? Studies by Asifa Akhtar’s laboratory have provided important answers to these questions and clarified the essential basics of regulating the X chromosome and autosomes.

The biologist and here team elucidated the molecular mechanism that controls the different functions of the epigenetic regulator MOF (males-absent on the first protein) on the X chromosome and the autosomes. This histone acetyltransferase facilitates the accessibility of genetic material by modifying histones, which are the proteins on which the DNA is wrapped around within the nucleus. Furthermore, the team discovered that this epigenetic regulator is also involved in other control processes in the genome. The DFG acknowledges that these findings have been “fundamental for understanding developmental and pathological processes as to be known in cancer”.

The broader importance and clinical relevance of the basic research carried out in the Akhtar lab was brought to the fore by the discovery of a human syndrome caused by a mutation in an epigenetic regulator closely related to MOF and another one of the lab’s main proteins of interest. The later termed “Basilicata-Akhtar syndrome” is marked by severe developmental delay and neurological dysfunction. The lab’s groundbreaking work on the molecular characterization of this human syndrome paves the way for better understanding and eventually alleviating the condition. 

Dr. Asif was born in Karachi, Pakistan and she presides the Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics as its vice president, the first International female to have this position. She is among 10 other scientists who will be awarded this prize in 2021 in an expected virtual ceremony.

Our heartfelt congratulations are presented to her. She is an inspiration for so many people pursuing science both in Pakistan and Germany. We look forward to her contribution to science.

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