After 15 years abroad at some of the world’s most prestigious universities, Johanna Höög has returned to Sweden. Now she is starting a whole new field of research in which she will study the 3D structure of sperm flagella using cryo-electron tomography.
‘The coolest thing about my job is when you see things that nobody else has seen before.’
We meet cell biologist Johanna Höög at Lundberg Laboratory, her workplace for the last couple of years. Right now, she is excited about being able to order an electron microscope so that she can start her research in earnest.
‘Using electron microscopy, we can take high-resolution photos of cells and with electron tomography take pictures from many different angles and then assemble them into a three-dimensional image. You could say that this is where structural biology and cell biology meet.’
Electron microscopy is a hot research field abroad, but it is perhaps not as common in Sweden. During her years abroad, Johanna has become something of an expert in the field, and she even says that she ‘really gets going when she sees an excellent image’. This fascination began when she was still a doctoral student at Europe’s top laboratory, EMBL (the European Molecular Biology Laboratory) in Heidelberg, and it continued when she received a postdoctoral position in Oxford. At the same time, she received a research grant established to enable young researchers to stay in the best research environments in the world.
‘The research grant essentially made it possible for me to go wherever I wanted to’, says Johanna, who spent three years in Boulder, Colorado, among other places.
After those years in the United States, she returned to Germany and Dresden. There she met her husband, Per, who grew up in the United States with Swedish parents, and they had a wonderful time in Germany. She first began thinking about moving home to Sweden when their daughter Julia was born.
‘After having skyping with the family in Trollhättan practically every day, we felt that it was time to move home again.’
She studies flagella – that is cellular ‘tails’ – that occur with some cells. The flagella can serve as a propeller, for example, enabling a cell to swim. Most people researching flagella look at green algae, but Johanna has also studied the parasite that causes African sleeping sickness. Her findings have shown that the flagella of both of these organisms look very different, and she then posed the question of how the flagella in human cells are constructed. But such studies have not been carried out.
‘That is why I have started a whole new field of research’, she says with a smile.
One type of human cell that has a small propelling tail is sperm, making sperm cells ideal subjects for study. By mapping out how the flagellum is structured and comparing healthy sperm with infertile ones, it should be possible to determine where the problem lies.
‘For example, we can look at infertile sperm that swim in a circle instead of straight ahead. What isn’t working? What part of the engine is missing?’
Johanna is set to get her research under way as soon as the new instrument arrives and she has received ethical permission to study human cells. That is something that was not needed when she started to check into this in the United States.
‘It will be very exciting to get started and look at human cells, where we can find brand new things and see things that nobody else has seen.’
Family: Her husband, Per, who is also a researcher at the University of Gothenburg, and 5-year-old daughter Julia
What I do when I'm not working: ‘Spend time with the family; we are very tight. And we travel a lot to meet up with friends, who live all over the world. As a hobby, I grow tomatoes in the greenhouse at home. I counted 67 plants today.’
Best place to stay: ‘Southern Germany, where it is super nice. I really hated living in England. When I studied there, I had to hold two extra jobs to pay the rent. Nine people shared a WC and living standards were lousy. Not to mention the bad weather.’