Humboldt Fellow Peter Fineran visits HIRI

Guest researcher from New Zealand studies CRISPR-Cas system in bacteria

The CRISPR-Cas system is in the spotlight for its ability to precisely modify the DNA of human cells. The system is derived from bacteria that use it to protect themselves from invading viruses. Prof. Peter Fineran studies bacterial CRISPR-Cas systems, including their regulation, at the University of Otago in New Zealand. He has received a Humboldt Research Fellowship for Experienced Researchers and is currently visiting the Julius Maximilian University of Würzburg (JMU) and the Helmholtz Institute for RNA-based Infection Research (HIRI), a joint institution of the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI) in Braunschweig and JMU.

Bacteriophages are viruses that infect bacteria by injecting their genetic material into host cells. This DNA is transcribed and translated into proteins that make up new viral particles. Eventually, the bacterial host cell bursts open and releases new bacteriophages. With the help of the CRISPR-Cas system, bacteria can recognize foreign DNA and degrade it before it serves as a template for bacteriophage production. Fineran studies phage resistance mechanisms in bacteria. “Many of the projects at HIRI fit very well with my own research interests. In addition, the HIRI has great experience in RNA-related technologies such as high-throughput approaches to study RNA-protein interactions,” says Fineran. “I want to learn more about these methods and use them to address various research questions.” With the help of approaches already in practice at HIRI and JMU, his goal is to improve the understanding of CRISPR-Cas biology in bacteria. Fineran’s research group in New Zealand has identified several genes that control phage resistance. “One area we are studying is how and why CRISPR-Cas is regulated in bacteria. Hopefully, this will enable us to exploit the system for new applications.”

Prof. Chase Beisel, head of the research group “RNA Synthetic Biology” at the HIRI, co-hosts Fineran along with Prof. Cynthia Sharma at JMU. “I am very happy to welcome Peter Fineran at the HIRI. Thanks to the Humboldt Research Fellowship we can build a collaboration and pursue projects together that we have been discussing for a while,” says Beisel.

At the University of Otago, Fineran heads a research group with 18 members. To help him keep his lab running, he has split his fellowship into multiple periods. Fineran will return to the HIRI for further research visits in 2020 and 2021. “In New Zealand, we are geographically distant from most other researchers. Therefore, my stay in Germany brings the opportunity to attend conferences and interact with the European research community more easily than I am used to,” says Fineran.

Peter Fineran graduated from the University of Canterbury, NZ. In 2006, he received his PhD from Cambridge University, UK, where he also did postdoctoral research. Since 2008, he has held an academic group leader position at the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Otago, New Zealand. This year he was the recipient of the prestigious Fleming Prize from the Microbiology Society, UK – their top award for early/mid-career researchers.