Anne Straube studied Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Hamburg, Germany. For her PhD, she joined the lab of Gero Steinberg at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, and later at the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology in Marburg, to work on the microtubule cytoskeleton in the fungus Ustilago maydis. With funding from the Emmy Noether programme, Anne moved to the Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell Biology in Edinburgh for a postdoc with Andreas Merdes, where she studied microtubule organisation in skeletal muscle cells. Anne started her own group in 2007 at the Marie Curie Research Institute in Oxted, Surrey, UK. After the institute closed in 2010, she co-founded the Centre for Mechanochemical Cell Biology at the University of Warwick with Rob Cross and Andrew McAinsh, where she has been a Professor since 2020 and the Head of Biomedical Sciences at Warwick Medical School since 2022. Anne's lab studies cytoskeletal dynamics and molecular motors using a wide range of live-cell imaging, biochemical and biophysical approaches. She is a recipient of the Lister Institute Research Prize and two Wellcome Investigator Awards. Anne is the Guest Editor for the 2023 Cell Biology of Motors Special Issue in Journal of Cell Science.
What are your research interests?
We want to understand how microtubules are organized and contribute to building and maintaining cell shape. Our other key focus is studying how molecular motors organize microtubules, how they transport cargoes and how motor activity is regulated. These questions are all connected, because a properly polarised microtubule cytoskeleton is essential to get motors moving to the right places.
What attracted you to the cytoskeletal motors field in the first place?
I did my Master's research on a pathogenic fungus and when thinking about what to do next for my PhD, my supervisor told me about a guy in Munich who was looking at motors inside fungal cells. This was the time when GFP had only just become a tool, and I thought there was nothing cooler than being able to see things move in a cell!
What technologies are you using to address your research questions?
We use a pretty wide range of techniques. With live-cell imaging, we look at how cargoes move inside cells and how microtubules are organised, we use in vitro reconstitution assays to test mechanistic ideas and look at the direct effects, and recently we also started to do some proper single-molecule biophysics to see the individual steps of motors and how they generate forces. We actually just got a new optical trap installed in the lab to focus more on the force dependence of motors. We also do a lot of biochemistry and work with mass-spectrometry-based techniques, including BioID, to identify new binding partners of motors, or crosslinking mass spectrometry to study intermolecular interactions. This allows us to investigate our questions from different angles. For any techniques we can't do ourselves, we collaborate.
A while ago you also collaborated with your father. That must have been quite a special experience!
Indeed. My father is a theoretical physicist, so we obviously sometimes discuss science. At that time, we realised that for tracking a migrating cell, we could use similar models to those used in polymer physics. He provided some nice programs to analyse our cell migration tracks, but having a family member as a collaborator also had some interesting effects – every time he sent some updated computer code, I suddenly needed to drop everything I was doing and test it, which is not something other collaborators would expect from you. But in the end it worked out well and he is now safely retired (smiles). Also, this was before our move to Warwick, where there's now a strong cohort of mathematicians, statisticians and computer scientists we can work with.
You were one of the founders of the Centre for Mechanochemical Cell Biology (CMCB) in Warwick, and at that point you were a very junior PI. Can you tell us about those times?
Yes, I was barely two years into starting my lab, had just recruited my first postdoc, our projects finally started moving, and I was also pregnant with my first child when the Marie Curie Research Institute decided to close – and informed us that they would do it quite quickly. With two great colleagues, Andrew McAinsh and Rob Cross, we decided early on that we'd stick together and spent the next year exploring new opportunities and planning how our future should look like. We had pretty bold plans, and Warwick turned out to be the place that could offer us what we wanted. So, the lesson is that change is always an opportunity, and I think we made the best of it.
“We had pretty bold plans, and Warwick turned out to be the place that could offer us what we wanted. So, the lesson is that change is always an opportunity…”
Coming back to the topic of cytoskeletal motors, what do you think are the biggest questions in the field that we are yet to crack?
We don't really have a good overview on which motors transport which cargoes – we know bits and bobs of information for some motor–cargo pairs, but there is still a huge amount of work required to link them all together and make sense of it. Also, although there's now a lot of work out there on how motors can be activated, we know very little about how transport events are terminated – so how a cargo ‘knows’ it arrived and can let go of the motor. In terms of bidirectional transport, how motor activity is coordinated is unclear, and we now know that there are cargoes that require more than one type of plus-end-directed motor, suggesting that motor coordination is not only required between opposite polarity motors. So, there are plenty of things to figure out, and I think the motors field will continue to go strong for quite a while.
“Also, […] we know very little about how transport events are terminated – so how a cargo ‘knows’ it arrived and can let go of the motor.”
Also going strong has been your ‘Motors in quarantine’ series, which you established during the pandemic. What have you enjoyed the most about running this series and do you think virtual seminars will continue to have an important place?
It's been great to see that there's a core group of people who regularly come along and that there are good discussions after the talks, with people being friendly to each other and also giving useful feedback. Even though they are no longer as well attended as during the lockdown phase, we still have a good, international, turnout. I'm quite happy when people from countries with lower resources attend, as that's an important advantage of virtual series and one of the reasons why it's worth keeping them going. As an organiser, I like that it has forced me to reserve some time for hearing about the latest new science in my field every week. It's a significant time commitment to run this weekly, so we've started reducing the frequency of the talks a bit. In the future, I'd like to see the series turn even more into a ‘preprint club’, where anyone in the field who has recently posted a preprint offers to give a talk. We're not selective at all in terms of who can speak as long as it's on the topic of molecular machines. For example, a couple of weeks ago we had a speaker from a primarily undergraduate institution and it was great to see how you can run a meaningful research project with undergrads during lockdown.
You are also actively involved in the American and British Society for Cell Biology (ASCB, BSCB). It seems you are someone who likes to do things for the community
Or maybe I'm just bad in saying ‘no’ to things! But it's true that I enjoy these activities, and I also feel that if you want to be part of a good community, then you have to play your part. Being the BSCB meeting secretary for 5 years was quite a big task, but it also allowed me to help design what the meeting should look like. I think meetings are one of the most fun parts of science, as science is done by people and at conferences you get to see the faces behind the names and chat to them.
Why did you accept the invitation to become a Guest Editor for this issue and what was your role?
Did I already mention that I don't say ‘no’ enough? But joking aside, I was really delighted when Michael [Way] offered me the guest editorship for a special issue on a topic so close to my heart. I feel the workload wasn't too bad; there was a bit of advertising in the beginning, and then the main part of course was handling the manuscripts, including evaluating pre-submission enquiries, deciding whether to send papers out for peer review and finding referees. Coming up with referee names was easy but during summer it was, understandably, a lot more difficult to get people to commit to reviewing.
Finally, what are the things you do in your free time?
I go orienteering almost every weekend and participate in whole-week events over summer – I've done three of those this year, two weeks in Sweden and a week in the Lake District, so I'm definitely getting some work–life balance. When orienteering, you get fresh air, see a lot of the countryside, and I also take my son along who enjoys doing the races, so it's a good family activity.
Anne Straube's contact details: University of Warwick, Gibbet Hill, Coventry CV4 7AL, UK.
Anne Straube was interviewed by Máté Pálfy, Features & Reviews Editor at Journal of Cell Science. This piece has been edited and condensed with approval from the interviewee.