Real Voices interview: Dasha Ausiannikava
Meet Dasha, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham
What do you do?
I study an ancient single-celled organism called Haloferax and the unusual way it replicates DNA. All cells have genetic information that they copy to make new cells, and this process starts at specific origins of replication in the DNA. When I joined Thorsten Allers’s lab in January 2015, they had already found that deleting all the origins of replication in Haloferax made the cells grow faster. This was very unexpected and is a paradox: why would cells have evolved origins of replication if they slowed growth?
What’s an average day like?
I start by checking how my Haloferax cultures are growing. Their natural habitat is salt lakes like the Dead Sea, so they require high temperatures, 45°C, and high salt concentration, 2 to 3 molar (equivalent to two tablespoons of salt in a glass of water). If life on other planets resembled life on Earth, then extremophiles like Haloferax would be ideal candidates as they manage to live with less water. Our experimental approach is to alter genes and see what happens. Haloferax has 4,000 genes but I have a shortlist of five that I’m particularly interested in – these genes encode proteins that interact with the origins of replication. By deleting them in different combinations, we can see how growth is affected and whether these proteins are necessary to initiate replication.
How did you get into research?
At school in Belarus, I was interested in biology, so I chose to study molecular biology at Edinburgh University. I wanted to do simple, elegant experiments that answered fundamental questions – like the experiments that discovered DNA.
After my PhD at Cambridge University, I came to Nottingham. Haloferax are certainly simple, but I was intrigued by the findings about replication and growth. You have to expect the unexpected with extremophiles!
What extreme conditions do you enjoy?
I’ve climbed the highest mountain in Europe, Mount Elbrus. The summit is 5,600 metres – it was extreme, but also very appealing and exciting.