Dr Amy Buck is honoured with the Max Planck-Humboldt Medal
The Max Planck-Humboldt medal 2023 has been awarded to Dr Amy Buck, Professor of RNA and Infection Biology, for her research into inter-species communication via RNA. The medal will be presented this November in Berlin.
Amy Buck has been awarded one out of the two Max Planck-Humboldt Medals, in addition to 60,000 euros in prize money. She is an RNA biologist and Professor at the Institute for Immunology and Infection Research at the University of Edinburgh.
Her lab studies how RNA controls gene expression and enables communication between pathogens and their hosts. Amy’s lab has pioneered the study of how RNA produced in one cell can also control the properties of distant cells, by focusing on how pathogens trick and tweak the immune system.
RNA and inter-species communication
RNA instructs the cell which proteins to make while also regulating how much and when. It is dynamic in nature and helps cells respond to infections too.
A new frontier in RNA biology has emerged in the last decade with findings that RNA is found outside of cells (extracellular RNA or exRNA) and can transmit information between cells, organisms and species as a form of communication.
Pathogens can release RNAs from their cells, and these exRNAs promote infections in both animals and plants. However, there are large gaps in knowledge on the mechanisms of exRNA use in infections. This is a budding field that requires an urgent understanding of the mechanisms to better understand and treat infectious diseases.
Amy’s research career started with studying how RNAs turn off genes during viral infection and how viruses use these strategies to persist in the body. In the School of Biological Sciences, she became intrigued with a different type of pathogen – worms!
Like viruses, worms trick the immune system to survive and persist in their hosts. But worms are thousands of times larger than most viruses and they usually live in cavities in the body (like the gut).
Amy started a collaboration with Professor Rick Maizels and showed that parasitic worms in the gastrointestinal tract of mice secrete sacs containing RNA for survival. These are absorbed by the intestinal cells of the host animals and change how the cell functions.
Her lab has identified factors that mediate the export and selectivity of RNA transmission from parasite to host. This work has stimulated research into using exRNA as a characteristic of infection. It has identified new vaccine candidates for important gastrointestinal pathogens that infect one-fourth of the world’s human population and all grazing livestock.
International leadership: European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST)
Amy is promoting European leadership in the young field of RNA communication by leading a European network COST Action called exRNA-PATH ‘RNA communication across kingdoms: new mechanisms and strategies in pathogen control’.
The COST Action involves over 180 scientists from across the world, utilising 500,000 euros of funding for 4 years. This coordinates the community to explore how different species use RNA to communicate, with a specific focus on host-pathogen interactions. This involves not only health-related research but also extends into agriculture.
Plants can also defend themselves against pathogens by releasing exRNA that targets the pathogen. Understanding how they do this could lead to new green interventions in agriculture (as opposed to pesticides) and work is already underway to test exRNA against grey mould that is caused by a fungus and impacts millions of crops annually.
To promote European leadership in this field the Cost Action brings together a unique and diverse collection of investigators examining exRNA communication mechanisms across diverse biological systems. A better understanding of how pathogens trick the immune system with RNA could offer new solutions to devastating diseases caused by bacteria, fungi, worms and parasites.
It is an honour to receive the Max Planck-Humboldt Medal for our work on RNA communication. A rewarding part of this job is to help coordinate European leadership in this area and learn from diverse scientists and models to advance this young field.