„As a scientist, you never stop learning and must always be open to other disciplines that can broaden your mind.“
“Imagine you are naked, without any protection. How can you protect yourself from a Tyrannosaurus? Run away, become toxic or burn like a candle as soon as you are touched?” This is how Heike Wägele would explain to an 11-year-old child what she is researching at the Museum Koenig Bonn. She is head of the Phylogenetics and Evolutionary Biology Section and investigates the biodiversity of marine slugs and their evolution.
Snails, slugs, marine nudibranchs – what do you specialise in?
On Opisthobranchia. These marine slugs exhibit a variety of biological phenomena and are beautiful in their diversity of colours and shapes. During their evolutionary development, they have developed some strategies that are almost unique in the animal kingdom and therefore make them extremely interesting for evolutionary research. Many slugs are able to ingest toxic substances, such as cnidoblast from jellyfish relatives, with their food, which they can use for defence if necessary. In researching the genetic changes, I am interested in the question: Why is it possible to eat poison? We investigate this, for example, by analysing molecules, studying the structure and shape of organisms or by researching phylogenetic precursors.
What are the benefits of your research field?
The active compounds of the dotted nudibranch (Jorunna funebris) for protection against predators are being examined, for example, for pharmaceutical activity against breast cancer, skin diseases or the growth of tumour cells. Likewise, natural substances could one day replace antibiotics. In a project funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research together with the Pharmaceutical Biology Department of the University of Bonn, we have studied the species diversity of marine slugs in Indonesia. We found many new species that pharmacists could use in the search for new pharmaceutical agents. Nobel laureate Eric Kandel used the nervous system of Opisthobranchia to research which proteins are required for the formation of short- and long-term memory and demonstrated similar mechanisms in the brain stems of humans. These discoveries are significant for understanding normal brain functions and their disorders, in neurological and mental diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. But the incorporation of foreign organelles or whole organisms is also of great importance for research into symbioses.
Have you ever thought in the wrong direction and succumbed to a mistake?
Yes, this happens from time to time when identifying slugs, as they very often change colours in the course of their development. For example, a slug I identified as Thorunna australis, which was only a few millimetres in size, turned out to be the Spanish dancer (Hexabranchus sanguineus), which can grow up to 50 centimetres. It was a misinterpretation, clarified by molecular analyses. Sometimes you are also brought “back on track” through cooperation with other research institutions. As a scientist, you never stop learning and always have to be open to other disciplines that can broaden your mind.
What do you see as your greatest professional success?
In obtaining various research grants from the German Research Foundation and especially in successfully applying for a professorship in Marburg, which I gave up for the family back then. I always wanted to do research. At the Museum Koenig Bonn I found a home where I could combine both early on. I successfully supervised many doctoral students and led a rather large working group with students from the Master’s and Bachelor’s programmes at the University of Bonn. Especially their positive feedback and that of the many mentees I have supervised in my academic career has always shown me that I am on the right track.
Is your job your dream job from the beginning or did it develop into that? Were there alternatives?
I started diving when I was 13. From then on I had an idea of what biology might look like. That’s what fascinated me. Nudibranchs are creative, colourful, filigree and you have to look very closely. But I’ve always enjoyed handicrafts – and still do – and once imagined working in a handicrafts shop. Today I’m a bit of a jewellery designer and I still work on furniture or knit. Creativity, new techniques and the involvement with beautiful things – that is important to me, both in science and in my hobbies.
What is the most complicated technical term to pronounce in your field of research and how can it be translated in a visitor-friendly way?
Aeolidioidea (aeolis Greek for pipe/tube). The term describes the family of the aeolid sea slugs. The animals are distributed worldwide. Another tongue twister is Pteraeolidia. This slug has tube-like dorsal attachments that are arranged wing-like (pteron Greek for wing).
What aspect of your daily professional life is your highlight?
Asking questions, thinking, networking, discovering and understanding the animal group. This combination is my highlight. I appreciate the cooperation with colleagues from other research institutions, the knowledge transfer and the cooperation with students, ideas and topics bubble up from that: Marine pollution is such a big issue. I always feel the desire to look, to discover the beauty of slugs again and again. Slugs are the butterflies of the sea. That’s a beautiful metaphor. Because slugs are actually not people’s favourites. But if you present the beauty of slugs with the many biological aspects in an exciting way, then not only researchers but also children and other interested people get excited about these animals.
Where would you guide me to first of all in the Museum Koenig Bonn? What is your favourite place in the Museum Koenig Bonn?
To the histology laboratory. With the help of histology and its staining methods, you can gain great insights from the smallest tissue samples. But the Museum Park is also a very beautiful place, which I have contributed to in our garden team for many years. However, my favourite place to be is in my office. This is where I develop ideas with students from our graduate school and the University of Bonn, explain many contexts, edit manuscripts and prepare expert reports.
Prof. Dr. Heike Wägele is head of the Phylogenetics and Evolutionary Biology Section at the LIB, Museum Koenig Bonn. She studied biology in Munich, Kiel and Oldenburg. Since her doctorate, she has focused her research on marine slugs. Several research stays have taken her to Antarctica, Australia and Indonesia, among other places. Since 2005 she has been a scientist at the Museum Koenig Bonn and has been investigating phylogenetic and evolutionary questions in the group of Opisthobranchia.