Elly Tanaka

A salamander as an ambassador for Vienna

While the world seems focused on just one topic at the moment – coronavirus and its impact on people and the economy – research in other areas is continuing (almost) unabated. One prominent example emanating from Vienna to the world is the research being done on the axolotl. This special kind of amphibian, which originally hails from Mexico, can regenerate itself better than any other terrestrial vertebrate known to us. That's why the salamander has been a hotly sought-after object of research since the 19th century.

Powers of self-healing

The fact that the axolotl and research into it can be found in Vienna is all down to Elly Tanaka. The renowned scientist from the USA brought the axolotl with her when she arrived at the Research Institute for Molecular Pathology (IMP) in Vienna in 2016. The groundwork for this had been prepared by none other than the Vienna Business Agency. At the Vienna Biocenter, where the IMP and numerous other institutes are based, scientists investigate the mechanism by which axolotls replace lost body parts such as, for example, appendages, or heal their own damaged spinal cord. Tanaka has been able to unlock many of these regeneration mechanisms.

Tanaka leads one of 16 groups at the IMP, which is considered to be one of the top addresses for basic research in the field of molecular biology in Europe. Correspondingly high is the number of projects financed by the European Research Council (ERC), which are considered a benchmark for scientific excellence. It is hardly surprising that Tanaka was able to secure financial support from the ERC for her axolotl project in 2017 shortly after relocating to Vienna from Dresden, where she previously headed up the axolotl research program at the local technical university.

Thousands of axolotl

About 1,000 mature animals are kept in aquariums at the IMP; including juveniles, there are about two to three thousand. However, not all animals are available for research purposes; many are kept to maintain breeding lines. Sequencing and the description of complex genomes are among the core competences of Elly Tanaka's laboratory. But the group's work goes much further. It covers developmental biology as well as stem cell research involving a range of different methods. The regeneration of whole organs or appendages, which makes the axolotl so interesting for research, is a complex process, says Tanaka. How replication functions is the central research question for Tanaka and her team. In any event, it might not come down to a certain gene.

Whether findings from the research into axolotl will ever be transferable to people – and in what form – is completely open. But the hope is there. "However," says Tanaka, "basic research is generally like this: the goal is not some practical benefit but rather much more about explaining fundamental mechanisms. On the other hand, far-reaching innovations can always be traced back to the findings of basic research."

Good research conditions in Vienna

Why are you currently doing research in Vienna and not somewhere else? What clinched it for making the move to Vienna was the attractive and cosmopolitan city, and above all the good research conditions offered by the IMP. "First-class infrastructure, supportive specialists in service departments and the large and stimulating research community at the Vienna Biocenter with its 1,850 employees and 90 research groups in four institutes," says Tanaka.

Delay due to coronavirus

Tanaka's team of 20 people was not left unscathed by coronavirus either. "Research activities at the IMP were reduced from the middle of March for a period of about one month. Only a limited number of people were allowed to enter the laboratories to ensure that key work continued," says Tanaka during the interview. Other activities such as meetings moved online. And there was more time to work on data for scientific publications. "All in all, the lockdown was naturally a challenge and disruptive for us scientists – like for most others, too. The most important thing is that everyone in the laboratory has so far remained healthy. And work at the institute has felt almost normal again since the middle of April," says Tanaka.

Although half-way normal conditions have prevailed again since the middle of April, things are still not back to how they were before coronavirus. Tanaka says, "We keep our distance and wear masks, but the laboratory is in full swing. All colleagues have the opportunity to be tested for SARS-CoV-2 on site, and are recommended to do so once a week. That has really helped us to feel safe in the workplace."

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