Luminaries: Imre Somssich

BY PRATEEK TRIPATHI, ASPB Student Ambassador, Postdoc Fellow, University of Southern California (First published July 2013)

Group Leader, Max Planck Institute of Plant Breeding Research, Cologne, Germany

somssichWhat got you interested in plant biology in general, and what influences directed you to your specific area of research?

Actually, I already had a strong interest in transcriptional regulation before I got interested in plant biology. I did my PhD (1979–1983) in the Department of Human Genetics and was interested in identifying differences in DNA replication that were causally linked to T-cell leukemia in mice. Our hypothesis was that shifts in the timing of DNA replication during the S-phase would influence the expression of gene loci within such regions. With the advent of molecular biology, I was searching for new challenges to apply such techniques to elucidate the molecular mechanisms underlying the control of transcription. This area was not well studied in plants in the early 1980s, so I applied to the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding in Cologne, Germany, to pursue this avenue of research.

Who influenced your scientific thinking early in your career, and how?

There was no one specific person who directly had a great influence. I read a lot of papers on DNA replication and transcriptional control from renowned scientists (David Baltimore, Max Birnstiel, Michael R. Green, Mark Groudine, Arthur Kornberg, Mark Ptashne, Robert G. Roeder, Kevin Struhl, and Robert Tjian), and that certainly influenced my way of thinking. Naturally, my mentors were also important in helping me to learn how to practically address specific scientific questions in the laboratory.

What do you think are good career moves for young scientists, and why?

I believe the most important things for a young scientist are

  1. to decide, within a reasonable time period, whether to pursue an academic or industrial career;
  2. to be honest and self-critical and to ask, “Am I truly driven by science, and am I really good at it?”;
  3. to ask, “What scientific question(s) do I wish to address in the future?”; and
  4. to determine the best research laboratories where you can learn what you will need for your future career.

Often, young researchers continue what they have done as a PhD student or early postdoc because this is convenient and they feel relatively knowledgeable about the research area. However, it certainly is worth thinking more deeply about moving to other research topics or even changing fields. This may require getting acquainted with new biological systems and methodologies, but it may turn out that this is where your vocation truly is.

If you were able to repeat your years as a graduate student or early years as a postgraduate student, would you do anything differently, and why?

Although I enjoyed my PhD research, I should have thought more about the project before I took it on. I only realized quite late that the financial situation of the laboratory did not allow one to dig deeper into certain biological questions because the required methodologies were too expensive. Moreover, the scope of the project was rather limited.

What journals do you regularly follow, and why?

I have always tried to follow the content of as many journals as possible that contained research relevant to my studies. This has become increasing difficult over the years due to the continuous increase in the number of journals. Certainly I always look at the high impact general journals, such as Cell, Nature, and Science, as well as the plant-specific ones, but I also continuously monitor journals that publish new methods and technologies. Particularly the latter ones can sometimes give me new ideas about how to approach particular questions in the lab.

What scientific discoveries over the past couple of years have influenced your research directions, and why/how?

The development of next-generation sequencing in combination with computational biology has revolutionized the way in which we can map protein–DNA interactions in vivo. By utilizing this technology with various methods such as chromatin immunoprecipitation, genomic footprinting, and DNase I hypersensitive site analysis, chromatin transitions and the occupancy of transcriptional activators and repressors to specific DNA sequences on genomic DNA can now be monitored on a global scale.

What do you think is the next big thing in plant biology, and why?

Unraveling the various complex and interwoven signaling pathways and how these signals are integrated within a cell will be a future challenge that should become feasible. Moreover, intense comparative genomics will uncover unexpected   functional features related to plant genome evolution.

What do you think will be the next big thing in your specific area of study, and why?

I can envision that we will soon be able to identify the various components that build up distinctive transcriptional protein  complexes and that we will be able to directly monitor in vivo the dynamic assembly, exchange, and disassembly of large transcriptional complexes at distinct regulatory DNA sites that will reveal how temporal expression of specific genes is modulated.

As an employer, what are the five key qualities you look for in a potential team member?

  1. A clear definition of his or her research interests and the ability to formulate testable hypotheses.
  2. The ability to stay focused on a research topic and to clearly outline why certain avenues of investigation will or will not be pursued.
  3. An eager willingness to learn new methods and technologies to further advance the research.
  4. A commitment to keeping up with the current literature despite the lab work.
  5. Complete honesty, and the ability to openly collaborate within the team and to help and motivate others.

What advice would you give to a student interested in plant biology today?

Research in plant biology is still not as crowded as in other fields, and there are highly interesting scientific questions that need to be addressed. Finding ingenious solutions to certain problems may not only be of academic importance, but also could have direct implications in improving plant traits in the field, which can be equally satisfying.

What experience or training do you think it is most important to have?

In the beginning, it is important to invest time into gaining in-depth knowledge of both the biological processes you are investigating and the state-of-the art technologies used to extract the maximum information from experiments. Don’t be superficial. Read and think deeply about your research area and get to know the details behind the various methods you are employing. Finally, learn to organize your experiments and to be extremely critical in interpreting the results of your research. Don’t be satisfied with ambiguous results.

What is the single most important factor for a successful career in plant biology?

In my opinion, there is no single such factor. Having identified, outlined, and initiated a novel research project with long-term perspectives is the ideal starting point for such a career, but many other factors will also contribute. These include your own personality and the ability to communicate the importance of your research plan to others, lab space and financing to demonstrate the feasibility of your approach, sufficient time to fully develop the project, and qualified colleagues to help exploit the various promising avenues that such a research program will surely open.

What advice would you give to educators to encourage young people to explore science and plant biology?

Teachers/educators can have a profound positive, but also negative, influence on how young people perceive science. Thus, it is important for such professionals to convey the excitement and enthusiasm intrinsic to scienceand not merely to present dry facts and information. I know that many teachers are already giving courses in such a creative way despite the fact that this requires intense preparation. Still, we need to intensify this form of science education. I am absolutely convinced that we can get more young people to think about going into science if we can give them a feeling of how important and rewarding such a career can be. Actually, it was my high school teacher’s enthusiastic way of giving biology classes that got me excited about biology.

How do you see the future of basic plant science as a part of policy-making body?

Research in basic plant science needs to be given similar priority as that of human health and medical research. Policy makers must become aware of the fact that the increasing world population and global climate changes will have a profound effect on crop yields and all aspects of plant growth and development and that this will drastically influence the quality of life on our planet. Such effects are already becoming increasingly evident in some parts of the world. If we are to at least partly counteract such negative effects, we need to gain a deeper molecular understanding of how plants function. This can be achieved only by strongly supporting basic plant research.

SOURCE: Tripathi, P. (2013) Luminaries: Imre Somssich. ASPB News 40(4): 15 – 16. Reprinted by permission from ASPB.