11 May 2016

New Professor Thomas Günther-Pomorski breaks it all apart...


…just to build it up again. According to the recently appointed Professor, that is the key approach to understanding the complex membrane dynamics he and his team are dealing with. In doing so, there is scarcely anything not potentially benefitting from the insights brought forth by the keen researcher.

By Johanne Uhrenholt Kusnitzoff

Professor Thomas Günther-Pomorski. Photo: Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, University of Copenhagen

Thomas Günther-Pomorski was assigned new Professor at the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences Center for Transport Biology on April 1, 2016.  He and his team are trying to unveil the true face of the cell by dissecting and understanding the individual parts, specifically the different types of membranes. Thomas Günther-Pomorski believes there is huge potential in uncovering the dynamics of membranes and their transport proteins, even if it means to break it all apart:

“Imagine that you would like to understand how your wristwatch is working. To do that you would have to take it apart and look at the individual parts before trying to put them back together, and see if it is still working. That is basically what we are doing – separating the membranes into the individual building blocks, studying their properties and at last trying to determine their specific roles in the functioning membrane,” explains Thomas Günther-Pomorski.

However, to understand his work fully, additional explanation might be needed. Luckily, Thomas Günther-Pomorski always has the appropriate imagery ready for such purposes:

“The cell is like a house. In a house you have different rooms for different purposes, like a kitchen for cooking and a bedroom for sleeping. All rooms are separated by walls. The cell is exactly the same. There are many different compartments, which perform different tasks in the cell, and they are separated by different membranes. These membranes are what my team and I investigate, especially how membrane transporters, also called membrane pumps, in the membranes work and how they interact with the surroundings.”

Sunlight harvest and decreasing demand for lab rats

For Thomas Günther-Pomorski, the above-mentioned research has two interdependent foci - basic scientific understanding and real life application.

“Understanding the principles and mechanisms of membrane transporters enables us to develop applications in various fields. For instance, the knowledge can be used to treat different illnesses, since many diseases originate from membrane transporters not functioning correctly. Also, we have been working with a team of researchers developing plant cells that produce high quantities of complex compounds such as drugs just by using power gained from the Sun. This was possible due to our specific knowledge of membrane transporters in the plant cells.  So in various ways, we can use our research to make biological systems build things and work for us which would otherwise not be possible,“ Thomas Günther-Pomorski explains.

Even lab rats can benefit from research in membranes, he adds. Here is how:

“Our research allows the medical industry to decrease the use of lab animals in the future. We can design simple biological systems based on membranes and membrane transporters that mimic individual parts of the natural, living body of an animal, but in a nonliving way. The drug developers can then start testing the drug on this tissue instead of a lab rat, and adjust the drug if it proves harmful on the membrane scale. Then lab animals will only be necessary in the very last stages of testing.”

A part of the research is in making these special mini membranes called vesicles and study how they act in different environments. Photo: Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, University of Copenhagen

Membrane transporters are like pyramid builders
With so many different promising applications, it might be hard to understand why these membranes and their transporters haven’t been mapped and fully described a long time ago. As Thomas Günther-Pomorski explains it, we now know what most of them do, but not necessarily how they do it. An entirely significant part of the puzzle that he and his team are spending a lot of their time trying to decipher.

“I am especially looking forward to understanding how lipid transporters work. We just do not know how they work right now, which is wild, because they play such an important role in the body, influencing the immune system, headaches and allergies just to name a few. It is important to know how these membrane transporters work in different environments and surroundings and how they are regulated. Even if they are the same kind of molecule, they might in fact work at different paces,” Thomas Günther-Pomorski explains. Again, he has a colorful metaphor at hand for this:

“Think for example of the project of building the great pyramids in Egypt. Countless groups of builders were sharing the work and when you look at the pyramids today, you might not care whether one group of builders were working faster than the others. But, if you were to build new pyramids, it would be nice to know which workers were fast which were slow and what conditions were responsible for that difference.”

And that is what he and his team is doing – sorting out how the different membrane transporters are behaving under different conditions, allowing the team to find even more applications.  Because the cell is not static and neither are its surroundings, which might just be the most intriguing aspect of the research area for Thomas Günther-Pomorski. The dynamicity of things. Even though, it can prove difficult to work with in practice, he concludes:

“The difficult part of this job is putting the wristwatch back together once we have taken it apart. That fails 90 percent of the time. But when it works, it is very satisfying and immensely useful to many-if not all-different fields of science.”