15 September 2021

Where I’m from

I’m from near Hannover in Germany – a region urban enough that Otago induced a bit of a culture shock when I first arrived here.

How I became part of Bioprotection Aotearoa

I was introduced to the New Zealand science scene when I came here for an internship during my MSc, and then I started my PhD in Peter Fineran’s lab on bacterial defence systems. After my PhD, I was given the exciting opportunity to keep working in this field as part of Bioprotection Aotearoa.

My research subject and how I became interested in it

During my PhD, I investigated bacterial defence systems such as restriction–modification and CRISPR–Cas, as well as anti-CRISPR proteins, a counter-defence mechanism evolved by bacteriophages – the viruses that infect bacteria.

I became interested in CRISPR–Cas during my studies at the Technische Universität Braunschweig in Germany when I read a review paper by last year’s Nobel laureate Emmanuelle Charpentier on small RNAs and their role in CRISPR defence. Coincidentally, Charpentier had a lab in Braunschweig at that time and I got in touch to see if I could start working with her as a way into the CRISPR field. Luckily, this never came to fruition and I instead travelled to Dunedin to join Peter’s lab – which I believe was the much better choice.

In this role, I am hoping to identify and characterise so-far unknown defence mechanisms, which might lead to interesting new applications – after all, the discovery of the popular gene editing tool Cas9 resulted from basic research like this.

What I like most about my research

Aside from generating new knowledge – I guess that’s why all of us do research – I also really like trying to find creative ways to communicate these findings in writing and through images. Believe it or not but I did enjoy some aspects of working on my thesis!

The impact I hope my research will have

There is still a lot we can learn when it comes to the interactions between bacteria and phages, and defence and counter-defence systems are one crucial aspect of this. I hope my research can help to broaden our understanding of this interplay. Phages can be used as agents against human or plant pathogens, and many bacterial or phage proteins have proven very useful in generating versatile tools. I hope to continue this tradition and help provide more examples of basic research as a source of great innovations.

What I like to do outside of work

I like to go running on the streets and trails in and around Dunedin, do amateur photography, check my plants way too often for whether they might have become a millimetre taller, look up places that could be nice for tramping … and sometimes actually go there!

Contact me about

Anything! Whether you want to know more about the research we’re doing, have ideas of potential overlaps or collaborations, or whatever else you might be interested in. I’m also very keen to work on my science writing and communication skills, so I’d be happy to hear from you if there are any opportunities available.

My social media accounts

I’m on Twitter as @NilsBirkholz