Martin Jastroch, Assiciate Professor. Photo:Niklas Henriksson

Martin has always been interested in nature and animals. He specialized in animal physiology and received his Master’s degree in Biology from the Philipps-Universität, Marburg, Germany in 2003. Early on Martin was intrigued by energy metabolism, and already as a bachelor student he worked as a volunteer in a lab where he later performed his Ph.D. studies. In 2007 he defended his thesis “Evolution and functional characterization of uncoupling proteins in vertebrates” at the Philipps-Universität, Marburg.

“It was an entirely new topic in the field that nobody had approached. So, as you can see, I started evolutionary analysis of thermogenesis as an undergraduate student”, Martin says.

After his Ph.D., Martin had the opportunity to stand in as the head of the molecular laboratory of the Animal Physiology in Marburg for one year prior to moving on to a postdoctoral position at the Buck Institute for Research of Aging in California in 2008. As a postdoc he learned new techniques to study mitochondrial function and applied them to figure out how mitochondria contribute to controlling insulin secretion by pancreatic beta cells. In 2011 he was one of the founding group leaders in the new Institute for Diabetes and Obesity at the Helmholtz center in Munich, which within seven years of existence has become one of the top biomedical institutes in the world.                                        

”During the last six and a half years in Munich I carried out research on mitochondrial function in metabolic disease, with a focus on questions related to beta cells and brown fat.”

A way to treat obesity and diabetes

At MBW Martin will continue along this line of research, in a general and medically applied way. More specifically he will study a mitochondrial protein, the so-called uncoupling protein 1 (UCP 1), which is exclusively found in brown adipose tissue (brown fat).

“Basically, UCP 1 short-circuits the respiratory chain and thereby releases the energy as heat, instead of storing it as ATP. This accelerates the whole energy turnover in brown adipose tissue. We follow how brown fat and UCP1 have evolved during evolution. We see what molecular changes have occurred and which molecular systems have been implemented to make it dissipating heat.”

This knowledge could be used to cure metabolic diseases like obesity and diabetes. The main type of fat in humans is white adipose tissue (white fat), used for energy storage. The sedentary lifestyle in the Western world of today implies that we are storing way too much energy in our bodies.

“One of my research goals is to activate white fat to release that extra energy as heat. We know that the molecular mechanism generating heat in brown fat involves UCP1 and supporting networks. If we could restore this molecular machinery in our white fat then we will be able to re-balance our metabolism to cure metabolic diseases such as obesity and diabetes in the future.”

Diverse spectrum of lab techniques and non-model organisms

Jastroch´s research group is studying energy metabolism at all systemic levels: in whole animals, in cells and in isolated mitochondria. The Jastroch lab uses several techniques to measure energy metabolism, including the precise measurement of oxygen consumption.

“We have cages where we can measure metabolic rate of living mice by measuring their oxygen consumption. The sensors can also register how much carbon dioxide is exhaled and how much food is eaten. For cells we have a special machine called a “seahorse”. It is an oxygraph with fluorescence sensors that can measure oxygen consumption at the cellular level. We can do the same for isolated mitochondria, too. So, when we have a gene-knockout with a phenotype, we can see how that changes the metabolism in the animal, in a particular cell, and even in the isolated mitochondrion of that cell”.

To be able to follow how thermoregulation evolved in terms of brown fat and UCP1, Martin is using comparative principles that have almost been lost in modern science. This implies using non-model organisms.

“The Krogh´s principle states that there is so many differences in innovations in nature that for any phenomenon you could find the right animal model to figure out how this phenomenon works. If you for example want to know how much cold a rodent could tolerate you would look into a polar but not into a desert species.”

The expertise in integrative physiology of mammalian energy metabolism means that Martin´s research group have had many fruitful collaborations over the years.

 “We enjoy collaborations and contribute with our knowledge to research projects of other groups. We learn more in shorter time and we are now confident that our help can make any other study touching energy metabolism better with our expertise, which is highly requested. I sense that we have accumulated a lot of credibility over time.”


What part of your research are you most interested in?

“I have to come back to the animals. I am fascinated by how animals adapt to changing environments to survive, how they change the underlying mitochondrial and molecular mechanisms.”

What motivates you to continue your research, for days, months and years on end?

“To find new things! It will happen if you have perseverance, are open-minded and observe the data critically. I also like working with students, teaching the new generation of scientists. The unbiased view of a student occasionally opens up a window towards new thinking, and the learning process between teacher and student should always be mutual.”

Which of the discoveries you have made over the years are you most proud of?

“All of them. During my Ph.D., it was the discovery of the uncoupling protein in fish. At that time, it was common textbook knowledge that UCP1 was exclusively a mammalian protein. Despite all odds I found it in fish. Later, milestones involved the discovery of brownish fat in marsupials and when we demonstrated that brown fat evolved before mammals migrated to the cold. We showed that mammals living in warm climates already had brown fat. We suggested that its purpose was not only for maintaining body temperature but also for offspring incubation to increase fitness.”

What was the reason you took this position when you got the opportunity?

“The challenge. To prove that I could succeed here, even coming from a well-funded scientific paradise such as Munich and the Helmholtz. But of course, the Wenner-Gren Institute at Stockholm University has the longest tradition in brown adipose tissue research, the highest reputation and credibility over the past 70 years. My passion, mitochondria and brown adipose tissue, made it impossible to resist the call. If Harvard would have asked me to come over there I would stayed in my Munich paradise.”


Name: Martin Jastroch

Age: 41

Comes from: Germany. “I have lived all over the country, from Hamburg in the north to Munich in the south.”

Family: Girlfriend, now “sambo”

Lives: “We used Airbnb moving from place to place. We just found a rental apartment but are looking to find more permanent housing.”

Interests: “Fishing, which I have done in five continents. Here in Sweden I prefer to do jerk-fishing for pike, fly-fishing for seatrout and I hope to find new fishing buddies”.

Talent: “I have a good feeling for scientific questions and to analyze things logically. Therefore, I made being an experimental researcher as my profession”.

Read more on Martin Jastroch´s Group page.