Scientist of the month: Miguel Branco

Miguel Branco from the Blizard Institute tells us about his current research on the epigenetics of transposable elements.

Brief biography

Miguel Branco, PhD 

Miguel did his PhD at the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre in London with Professor Ana Pombo, where he studied the spatial organization of the genome. He then joined Professor Wolf Reik's group at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge. Here, he made important contributions to the field of epigenetics, in particular with regards to the distribution and role of DNA hydroxymethylation in embryonic stem cells. In 2011, he was awarded a Next Generation Fellowship from the Centre of Trophoblast Research to establish his research program within the Reik lab. 

Miguel joined the Blizard Institute (QMUL) in October 2013 to establish his own lab after securing a competitive Sir Henry Dale Fellowship from the Wellcome Trust and Royal Society. His current research interests focus on the epigenetic regulation of transposable elements, aiming to understand the intricate evolutionary relationship between epigenetic mechanisms and transposon genetics in contexts such as development and disease.

Q. What sparked your passion for science?

I don't have a particular anecdote or growing-up story to justify it. Learning and doing science simply felt natural to me. Right from my school years all the way to establishing my own lab, I never felt like my path was chosen through active decision for the most part. It was just the obvious thing to do and I never look back on it.

Q. What made you focus on epigenetics research?

I trained as a biochemist so I have always had a very molecular view of biology. The study of gene regulation, and epigenetics in particular, just presented itself as a very interesting set of molecular questions with far-reaching implications. 

Of course serendipity often plays a role in these decisions, which it did in my case, but the subject of epigenetics has just kept on drawing me further in as I learn more about it.

Q. Briefly what are your current research interests?

The overarching theme of the lab is the epigenetics of transposable elements. We are interested in those fascinating genomic elements from two basic perspectives. On one hand we are looking into how the genome defends itself against the fraction of retroelements that retain potential for mobility. But we also have a keen interest in the evolutionary co-adoption of transposable elements by the host genome, especially in cases where they become used as gene regulatory elements.

Our core expertise lies in DNA modifications and early embryonic development, but we are also venturing into other areas.

Q. What key epigenetics would you like to see answered in the next 5–10 years?

We're at a point where we've done a decent enough job describing and comparing epigenomes from different cell types and in several diseases. We now need to dissect the driver epigenetic alterations from the passenger ones, i.e., which local chromatin changes lead to phenotypic changes in development and disease, and which are redundant and/or inconsequential?

We are also seeing the advent of single-cell epigenomics, which will bring exciting new insights into how stochastic epigenetic events are involved in processes like cell differentiation and cancer. 

Finally, it is critical that we get a firm handle on transgenerational epigenetic inheritance in mammals. It is a controversial topic that requires the highest level of experimental scrutiny, but one that has amply captured the public's interest and concern and therefore must be addressed.

Q. Any words of wisdom for young researchers just starting out?

Read Ramón y Cajal's "Advice for a young investigator", which is filled with such wisdom from a far more credible source than me. My brother gave me that book shortly after I started my postdoc. It's inspiring in the least, and it might just nudge you towards a different way of thinking about and doing science.

Q. What do you like most about being a scientist?

I have always been, and remain highly driven by the problem-solving aspect of research. This is true for problems of all scales, from the daily experimental issues and oddities in results that need figuring out, all the way to the big questions that require establishing models and experimental strategies in order to be tackled. And of course the elation of when those problems are solved!

Q. What would you be working on if you weren't a scientist?

Although a complete amateur, I really enjoy computer programming. I'd like to think that with a significant amount of training I could do it for a living.

Q. One thing you could not live without (inside or outside the lab)?

My family.