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Alwin Köhler receives NOMIS Pioneer Award

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(Vienna, 23 January 2017) Alwin Köhler, researcher at the Max F. Perutz Laboratories (MFPL),  was awarded the NOMIS Foundation Pioneer Award in recognition of his outstanding scientific work. NOMIS is a private Swiss foundation that supports high-risk and high-potential research across all disciplines, with a special focus on researchers working on pioneering ideas.

Over the course of the next three years, the NOMIS Foundation will support the Köhler group with 1.000.000€ to start investigating a process called cryptobiosis. Cryptobiosis, meaning “hidden life”, is characterized by immeasurable metabolic activity, which keeps certain organisms in a sleeping beauty-like state: not dead, but also not alive. It likely serves as an adaptation to harmful environmental influences. As soon as conditions improve, animals exit cryptobiosis and return to normal life. How cellular integrity is preserved during cryptobiosis, as well as how entry and exit from cryptobiosis are regulated on a molecular level are questions that remain to be answered. “Cryptobiosis has been on my mind for quite a few years. I think it's a truly fascinating biological phenomenon, but we know so little about it.”, says Alwin Köhler. “I am excited to use the NOMIS Award to pursue a new line of research. It’s a rare opportunity in science to be able to step outside of the box and start something off the beaten track.“

Possibly the most famous animals capable of cryptobiosis are Tardigrades, popularly known as water bears or moss piglets. These eight-legged animals (up to 1,5 mm in size) live in a range of habitats, from the Himalaya to the Mariana trench. They are often found in mosses and other moist environments in temperate climate zones. Tardigrades have attracted a lot of public attention, as they can tolerate the most unfavorable conditions such as complete dehydration, temperatures ranging from -273°C to almost 100°C and exposure to high UV radiation. Tardigrades were even sent to outer space and found to survive after returning to earth.

The Köhler group will use Tardigrades to study selected aspects of their protein and DNA metabolism. In part, this will be done in collaboration with groups in Japan and the US. “I often get asked whether this has any relevance for the human condition. I do think so, but perhaps in less obvious ways. The deterioration of protein homeostasis underlies human aging and several neurodegenerative disorders. So let’s see how Tardigrades keep their cells in shape and we might learn something about human pathology as well. For now, I suggest that people collect some moss, rinse it with water and try to find Tardigrades under a microscope. They are out there and really amazing.”

Max F. Perutz Laboratories (MFPL)
The Max F. Perutz Laboratories (MFPL) are a center established by the University of Vienna and the Medical University of Vienna to provide an environment for excellent, internationally recognized research and education in the field of Molecular Biology. The MFPL are located at the Vienna Biocenter, one of the largest Life Sciences clusters in Austria, and host on average 60 independent research groups, involving more than 500 people from 40 nations.