Half-way into PLAMORF, what were your group’s main achievements so far?
We have achieved a lot! We got a great team of students and postdocs. Also, we implemented the single cell sequencing platform and have sequenced the cells of all main tissues of grafted and flowering plants. Nearly every month we find new and quite surprising aspects of how mRNA transport is regulated and what mRNAs move to specific tissues.
Grafting is employed to find out, which mRNAs move to other tissues and how this transport is regulated.
And what are your main goals for the next six months?
We are about to confirm some findings and finalize some of the experiments. So I am quite exited to know soon what the function of some transported mRNAs we found in our single cell sequencing could be.
Why did you put the focus of PLAMORF on long distance transport of RNA, and not for example proteins?
Our starting point is RNA. But that’s not exclusive. Both aspects are addressed in our PLAMORF consortium. For example, we know that many proteins encoded by mobile mRNAs are also moving across graft junctions. This includes also phloem RNA binding proteins that we study regarding their role in RNA delivery to distant cells.
Being an expert in one narrow domain of science is less and less likely to lead to major breakthroughs. Highly interdisciplinary projects like PLAMORF are the key to big discoveries. Which areas outside of life sciences do you think will be the main drivers of knowledge increases?
That’s difficult to answer. But looking a bit into a crystal ball, I think quantum computing combined with self-learning algorithms will for sure change the way we analyse complex data and find novel ways to tackle our social problems. This includes also challenges such as climate change and use of energy in agriculture. Here I am very concerned with respect to increased erosion of farmland, increased costs of fertilizers, and on the other hand the reluctance to use new breeding technologies.
In our first interview Richard Morris told us that his group could continue their research during the lockdowns because it is computer-based. How was and is your work in PLAMORF affected by Covid-19?
That was quite difficult. First, I told all lab members to stay at home till we knew how we could limit physical contact. We also had to ensure that our plant lines were harvested and not lost during the lockdown. Then we implemented a rotation system for the lab work. This needed thorough individual timing / planning of the experiment to ensure that people did not block each other’s experiments.
Overall, I would say that we lost more than 6 months of lab work.
The pandemic has put scientific research in the spotlight for example with the development of the Covid-19 vaccines. Do you think this will lead to a general recognition of the importance of research?
I think so, as many people see how scientific findings can be used very fast to produce a vaccine. Although, it also seems that some smaller groups are getting more sceptical, which can be seen in the discussion of whether one gets vaccinated. It seems, the more people know about how the new vaccines works, the less reluctant they are. For example, all students and lab members I know got vaccinated without hesitation. Whereas some outside life science research seems to be afraid as they listen to false or misleading information.
We have to communicate and share our knowledge and new findings better.
… and do you think increased recognition will lead to more money to finance research, especially basic research like PLAMORF is conducting?
I am an optimist, and my general answer is yes. However, seeing that over the last three years the basic Max Planck budget of my group was significantly cut and that we got fewer funding opportunities, I am quite sceptical.
In addition to funding and the pandemic, which other challenges is your group facing?
I am wondering why every year we get a lower number of PhD and PostDoc applications from within the EU. It seems that to work in basic plant science is not very attractive for EU citizens, given the political reluctance to support plant science and discussions about GMO plants. But maybe the employment conditions or also not very attractive in academic societies in Germany.
For background information on the work of the Kragler group check out the group profile on our website or the Max-Planck-Institute website. Visit also the work package descriptions to find out which research questions PLAMORF wants to answer and have a look at the main objectives.
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