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    Chemistry meets molecular biology


    Claudia Höbartner holds the Chair of Organic Chemistry I at Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (JMU) in Bavaria, Germany. She studies DNA and RNA, the blueprints of life.

    Professor Claudia Höbartner. (Photo: Robert Emmerich)
    Professor Claudia Höbartner. (Photo: Robert Emmerich)

    DNA and RNA belong to a class of macromolecules called nucleic acids which are found in all living beings. Both nucleic acids store, transport and regulate genetic information. A few years ago, researchers found out that DNA and RNA are capable of functioning as enzymes as well. Enzymes are biological catalysts that facilitate biochemical reactions.

    Claudia Höbartner has been intrigued by nucleic acids for quite some time, being the subject of her dissertation already at the University of Innsbruck (Austria). Ever since, she has been fascinated by the functional variety of DNA and RNA. Her goal is to harness these functions for research, e.g. by synthesizing molecular tools that can be used at the interface between chemistry and biology.

    Detailed image of DNA enzymes

    "We synthesize chemically modified DNA and RNA, we develop catalysts from DNA and RNA and we explore their functions and application potential," she describes her work in a nutshell.

    In 2016, her team landed a notable success: Together with fellow scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, she published the spatial structure of a DNA enzyme at the atomic scale in the journal Nature for the first time. This proved that DNA also folds to form intricate three-dimensional structures to be able to perform catalytic activity.

    ERC grant for RNA research

    Claudia Höbartner is also working on RNA enzymes. For one of these projects, the European Research Council granted her an "ERC Consolidator Grant" worth over two million euros. The goal is to develop fluorescent RNA enzymes that can be introduced into living cells to visualize their activity "live" using fluorescent signals.

    "We want to make sure that the fluorescence is switched on only when the enzymes are working," the professor explains. Only recently, did her team overcome an obstacle on its way towards achieving this goal. After modifying an RNA molecule with a fluorescent block, the researchers discovered that their construct did not survive in a cell extract for a long time: A cellular enzyme quickly removed the attached block. By modifying the fluorescent dye, they were finally able to eliminate the enzyme's activity.

    Modifications to the mRNA

    In nature, RNA molecules often don't occur "naked", but carry various modifications of which hundreds are known such as methylations. However, it is a relatively new discovery that they also occur on messenger RNA (mRNA).

    "We don't know what functions these modifications have in mRNA. This is being researched intensively at the moment," Höbartner explains. Some of these research activities are funded within the scope of a Priority Programme of the German Research Foundation (DFG) in which Professor Höbartner participates.

    Teaching: a solid education for students

    JMU students can expect to get a sound education in organic chemistry from Höbartner. But her lectures will also address biomolecular chemistry and her area of expertise from early on. Students, who want to do a bachelor's, master's or doctoral degree in her group, should be curious to learn how life works at the molecular level.

    Career of Claudia Höbartner

    Claudia Höbartner, born in Krems an der Donau (Austria) in 1977, studied Technical Chemistry at the Technical University of Vienna. After completing her diploma thesis at the ETH Zürich, she moved to the University of Innsbruck to work on her doctoral thesis. In 2005, she joined the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (USA) as a postdoc.

    In 2008, Claudia Höbartner came to Germany: She accepted the position of a research group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen. She also worked as a chemistry professor at the University of Göttingen for two years. In July 2017, she relocated to JMU where she heads the Chair of Organic Chemistry I.


    Prof. Dr. Claudia Höbartner, Institute of Organic Chemistry, University of Würzburg, T +49 931 31-89693, claudia.hoebartner@uni-wuerzburg.de

    Website of Höbartner's group