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Gerd Jürgens – from model fly to model plant: a high risk career

Some scientists have a keen sense for new and exciting research topics. The developmental biologist Dr. Gerd Jürgens from Tübingen is one such scientist. His courageous step from research involving the well-known fruit fly to research on a rather inconspicuous plant has recently been rewarded with his appointment as the new director of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology.

When Gerd Jürgens told his colleagues many years ago that he was going to focus his scientific career on research into a small, agriculturally insignificant plant called Arabidopsis thaliana, he just met with stunned disapproval. Back then, at the beginning of the 1980s, Jürgens spent his postdoctoral period at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg in the group of Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard and Eric Wieschaus who were carrying out groundbreaking experiments on the embryonic development of fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster). And at the time, Jürgens, a dynamic postdoc, was claiming in all seriousness that the excitement about the fruit fly would soon fade and that this was why he needed to look for another scientific challenge. Janni (eds. note: Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard) looked at me as if I were from a different planet,” recalled Jürgens laughing. “And Eric just said ‘Ara-what?’.”

Professor Dr. Gerd Jürgens © Bochum / BioRegio STERN

Nüsslein-Volhard, who was later awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, does not appear to have resented Jürgens for his courageous thesis. When Nüsslein-Volhard moved to the Friedrich-Miescher Laboratory in Tübingen she took Jürgens with her, making it clear, however, "that the green stuff had to remain out of her laboratory". Jürgens did as his boss asked, but nevertheless never lost his enthusiasm for the rockcress, as non-scientists call Arabidopsis.

A quarter of a century later, the scientist has been able to move in under the same roof as his former supervisor - along with his plants. In September 2008, Jürgens, who had in the meantime become a worldwide leader in plant genetics, was appointed director of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, where Nüsslein-Volhard has already been head of the Department of Genetics for many years. The Grande Dame of the Max Planck Institute most likely accepted Jürgens and his plants in good humour as the two scientists have been close friends since they first met at the EMBL in Heidelberg.

Green insiders’ tip

After spending a few years on Drosophila research in Nüsslein-Volhard’s laboratory in Tübingen and achieving huge success, Jürgens finally achieved what he had announced in 1986, which was to work with Arabidopsis. “At the time, Arabidopsis was regarded as an insiders’ tip,” recalls Jürgens. As far back as 40 years ago, the botanist Friedrich Laibach postulated that the modest plant with a small genome was, just like Drosophila, an excellent model organism for investigating basic biological processes. Nevertheless, the weed had been in the scientific shadows for many years.

“At some stage I heard that a couple of institutes in the USA were working with Arabidopsis,” said Jürgens and he therefore decided to move to the States in order to learn what he needed to know in order to be able to work with this plant. Armed with a foreign exchange grant from the German Research Foundation (DFG), Jürgens left for Berkeley, where he was surprised to see that the laboratory had not established a single method. Jürgens recalled with horror that “the researchers there actually knew far less than I did.” It did not take him very long to decide that “if I have to set something up from scratch, I will do it on my own.”

Furious garden shed research

Back in Tübingen, Jürgens found a new scientific home at the Institute of Biology at Tübingen University. He had already been granted financial support from the German Research Foundation (DFG) and was working on getting the grant turned into a research grant. His application was successful and he still recalls to this day what the person dealing with the case said to him: "Honestly! Have you really thought carefully about this change from animal to plant research? Especially at your age." Jürgens, who was 37 years old at the time, was fully determined to take on the new venture.

"I had gained comprehensive experience from my work with Drosophila. And even though the two organisms are quite different and not all methods work as well as others, I had a good idea of how it could work," said Jürgens. Nevertheless, the initial steps involved a lot of dedication and hard work. Jürgens grew his first plants on his laboratory windowsills. "This was genuine garden shed research," said Jürgens with a smile. But when he succeeded in generating his first phenotypically altered plants using chemical mutagenesis, this immediately caused a furore.

Leibniz Award creates scope for research

His success resulted in a number of interesting job offers. In 1989, Jürgens, who had in the meantime married a researcher colleague, was offered a professorship at the University of Munich. “This was actually my first ever permanent job,” said the scientist. And thanks to this new-found job security, he was finally able to concentrate fully on his research. When he presented the results of his mutant screens at an Arabidopsis meeting, Jürgen felt a sense of gold rush fever among the participants: “By then, Drosophila research had become an established research area. And for those who thrived on risk taking, the plant Arabidopsis was a new and exciting venture.

Microtubuli (red) and the membrane-associated protein KNOLLE (green) play an important part in the cell division of plants (cytokinesis). Considerable differences can be observed between wild-type (a) and mutant (b, c) plants. © Prof. Jürgens

Jürgens’ excellent work did not go unnoticed at his former workplace. Two years after leaving the University of Tübingen, the university offered him the chair of developmental genetics. Jürgens was tempted, but his return to Tübingen was associated with numerous problems, in particular the fact that no suitable rooms were available. The possibility of using laboratories at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology was one possible temporary solution, but in 1996 this all meant that Jürgens was faced with a difficult decision. Researchers abroad soon became aware of the situation and “it did not take long before I received job offers from American institutes,” recalled the scientist. But, for personal reasons, he didn’t really want to leave Germany. His father-in-law was seriously ill and dependent on help. Jürgens therefore sees it as a happy coincidence that he had just received the Leibniz Award. “This put the University of Tübingen on the spot.”

Plants find own solutions

Then things started happening fast. Jürgens was given a new laboratory and in 1997, the DFG granted him and colleagues from the University of Tübingen a cooperative research centre (SFB) on “Mechanisms of eukaryotic cell behaviour”, for which he is still the spokesperson. Two years later, Jürgens and colleagues from the University of Tübingen established the Centre for Plant Molecular Biology (ZMBP): “We wanted to establish an institute with independent research groups, just like the American model, in order to create an excellent research environment under university conditions.” Their plan was successful and the ZMBP attracted many outstanding graduates and doctoral students who have since carried out a considerable number of groundbreaking research projects. “Many of my former staff have been appointed professors at German and international universities,” said Jürgens with some pride.

Now that he has become director of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, Jürgens no longer intends to leave Tübingen. The last big temptation was an offer from the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna in January 2006. After having spent so many years in the Swabian city of Tübingen, he could well have been tempted to leave. However, the plans eventually fell through due to the incompatibility of the Austrian and German pension schemes. “It took quite a long time before I got used to the idea that I was going to stay put,” said Jürgens frankly.

In the meantime, he is looking to the future once again, partly thanks to his new activities at the MPI. Arabidopsis research has still got a long way to go. Jürgens’ new research group at the MPI will mainly focus on the early embryonic development of the plant. “We will be using molecular biology methods to find out how the plant knows where top and bottom is,” said the renowned scientist. Researchers at the ZMBP will continue the cell biology-oriented work, with a particular focus on regulatory processes in the plant cell. Jürgens is more excited than ever about the specific survival strategies of plants. “These are organisms that have to deal with the environment around them and that is why they come up with slightly different solutions from animals.”

Further information:
Professor Dr. Gerd Jürgens
University of Tübingen
Centre for Plant Molecular Biology (ZMBP)
Department of Developmental Genetics
Auf der Morgenstelle 3
72076 Tübingen
Tel.: +49 (0)7071 29-78887
E-mail: gerd.juergens(at)zmbp.uni-tuebingen.de


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