Presenting… molecular biologist Verena Baumann

Autophagy: The waste collection in our cells

25. February 2022 by Benjamin Furtlehner
Our cells produce waste all the time. But how do they get rid of it? In the video, our doctoral candidate Verena Baumann explains how common yeast helps her to understand the cellular waste collection.
© Benjamin Furtlehner

Verena Baumann's research at the Max Perutz Labs is focusing on a fascinating process called autophagy, which is Greek for "self-devouring". Autophagy ensures the well-being of our cells by wrapping harmful material into a cellular waste bag, the so-called autophagosome. "During my PhD. I am studying the actual mechanism that generates this membrane structures from scratch before its content can be degraded and recycled", explains the molecular biologist. "And although it might sound surprising at first, in order to do so, I am using the same yeast that is needed to make pizza, beer and Germknödel dumplings."

Learning from yeast

Many cellular processes, among them also autophagy, are conserved – from the single cell yeast all the way up to humans. In 2016, the Japanese cellular biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for investigating cellular recycling processes using yeast as model organism. "Figuring out how autophagy works in yeast helps us understand what happens within each of us. With this, our basic research approach is setting the stage for more applied research, dealing with diseases that have been connected to autophagy like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson", says Verena Baumann, who joined the Vienna Biocenter PhD Program in 2017.

In the video series 'Presenting early stage researchers', PhD candidates of the Vienna Doctoral Schools talk about the burning questions that they investigate, allow you to look over their shoulders during their research activities and show how their ideas contribute to shaping the world of tomorrow.

Rebuilding cellular processes

Studying autophagy resembles the work of a clock smith building a watch, explains the young investigator: In order to figure out the function of each little gear, she and her colleagues take the mechanism apart and create a toolbox with all the necessary components. Then they start putting it back together piece by piece in the test tube. "By these means we managed to reconstitute a big part of the autophagic machinery, offering us important insights into what is actually happening in the cell", says Baumann.

Vienna Doctoral Schools

The Vienna Doctoral Schools at the University of Vienna correspond to international standards and meet the highest quality in a wide range of research fields. Verena Baumann appreciates the stimulating community in the Vienna Biocenter PhD Program – a Doctoral School of the University of Vienna and Medical University of Vienna and one of Europe's leading PhD programmes in the Life Sciences. It aims to support excellent PhD candidates in becoming tomorrow's leading scientists through a comprehensive training programme. Find out more about the Vienna Doctoral Schools.

Pushing science forward

Verena Baumann studied at the University of Innsbruck before joining the team of Sascha Martens at the Max Perutz Labs, a joint venture between the University of Vienna and the Medical University of Vienna. The Max Perutz Labs are part of the Vienna Biocenter, one of Europe’s hotspots for life sciences. "It is an amazing spot to do science at. There is so much know-how and great equipment under one roof. This, combined with the open and stimulating community in the Vienna Biocenter PhD Program, is the perfect recipe for pushing science forward every day."

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© feelimage / Matern
© feelimage / Matern
Verena Baumann studied at the University of Innsbruck before joining the team of Sascha Martens at the Max Perutz Labs. She is a PhD candidate belonging to the Vienna BioCenter PhD Program, a graduate school of the University of Vienna and Medical University of Vienna. She is investigating the molecular mechanisms of autophagy.