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Waltraud Schulze – the appeal of extreme sports and other extreme activities

Waltraud Schulze is like the plants she studies: a master in the art of living and extremely diverse. For her explorations by bike, the biologist loves the arctic cold of Lake Baikal as much as the desert heat of Australia. She is considered to be the first woman to have climbed three 6,000 m summits in the Tibetan Plateau, she writes travel guides, runs her own website and has recently started learning Chinese. Since November 2012, Schulze has been chair of the new Department of Plant Systems Biology at the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart.

The 39-year-old biologist welcomes visitors in a short-sleeved T-shirt and trekking sandals; the sunlight shines in through the window. Schulze apologises for the sparsely equipped rooms. Cardboard boxes with computers in the hall, a lone travel backpack on the desk – this is Schulze’s life at the moment, the life of a nomad who travels back and forth between her former workplace at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology in Potsdam where her research projects continue, and her new workplace in Stuttgart. In her office, our eye falls on two bikes leant against a wall under a poster of the Himalayas and a camping stove next to a laptop on her desk. The wooden shelf behind the desk is crammed with books; in the middle a box with Chinese tea and a blue and white tea set catches our eye. A marvellous merging of the private and professional passions of the newly appointed professor.

How experts in adaptation transmit information

Waltraud Schulze is considered to be the first woman to have climbed three 6,000 m summits in the Tibetan Plateau, she writes expedition diaries and is currently learning Chinese. On a professional level, she enthuses about basic plant physiology research. © Braitmaier/BioRegioSTERN

“Expeditions and science have more in common than you might think,” Schulze says. People need the ability to solve problems in a creative way, perseverance and a certain tolerance to frustration. She uses the breaks in the most remote places in the world to map out new ideas. “I think that my scientific creativity benefits from my ability to see things from a different perspective, in the sense that I do not see things as important as they might seem in the first place,” she adds. Schulze’s professional fascination is directed towards plants: how can they adapt so quickly to external changes such as light and nutrition, how can they grow in dry and hot deserts as well as in cold arctic areas? “We look at the molecular level to try and understand what is happening,” said the plant physiologist who was born in the city of Würzburg in southern Germany. Schulze is particularly interested in membrane proteins, which detect external stress stimuli and transmit this information to the control centre in the plants’ nucleus via a signalling cascade. The information is transmitted by way of small phosphor groups that are attached to intracellular messengers, thereby controlling their activity.

Schulze and her team have chosen a systems biology approach for solving their research questions. They use state-of-the-art proteomics methods, not only to analyse single proteins, but, if possible, the entirety of thousands of proteins for their ability to interact with each other as well as with lipids and metabolites. For example, they expose the plant Arabidopsis thaliana, which is a popular research model, to different nutritional conditions such as sugar or nitrate content and extract all plant proteins at different points in time. Mass spectrometric analysis enables the researchers to determine the proteins’ phosphorylation state. The plant researchers then reconstruct the large number of signalling pathways from an immense amount of data. The scientists also rely on predictions from computer models into which they feed their data. They select the most interesting proteins to investigate how the plant behaves when these key proteins are turned off. “If we understand which signalling pathways the plants activate when they adapt to altered nutritional conditions, or when they adapt to drought and coldness, then we will be able to breed plants with these specific characteristics,” said Schulze.

 

Chinese – bridging science and hobby

Large quantities of plant cells – here kept in cell culture – are required to isolate sought-after membrane proteins. © Prof. Schulze

In one of her future projects, Schulze will focus on wild plant species in ecological niches, which are excellently adapted to extreme environmental conditions. Such species are referred to as ecotypes or natural variants. “Hohenheim has an excellent infrastructure for research into cultivated plants, and it provides us with the opportunity to find out whether Arabidopsis signalling processes can be transferred to maize (corn), barley or soy beans,” said Schulze pleased with her new professional environment. 

Schulze is excited about the possibilities offered by the new sequencing technologies; they can, for example, be used to decipher the genome, which contains the information for making proteins of an increasing number of plant species. The Venus flytrap, a carnivorous plant and another of Schulze’s favourite objects, only became accessible for proteomic and systems biology research thanks to state-of-the-art genomics technologies. China, its diverse landscapes and plants, is another of Schulze’s favourites – both scientifically as well as personally. Schulze is already looking for potential Chinese project partners; every evening she studies Chinese and this is another area where science and hobby come together. At present, the establishment of her research group at the University of Hohenheim takes priority, but there will definitely be another expedition, and Schulze will then be able to gather new inspiration for her research. As usual, she will be accompanied by her long-term expedition partner, and elk Sven, a plush toy that will once again document the journey in photos on Schulze’s website.

Further information:
Prof. Dr. Waldtraud Schulze
Institute of Plant Physiology and Biotechnology/Plant Systems Biology
University of  Hohenheim
Garbenstr. 30
70599 Stuttgart
Tel.: +49 (0)711/ 459 – 24770
E-mail: wschulze[at]uni-hohenheim.de

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