The German Max Planck Institutes are world leaders in the area of plant research. Prof. Dr. Detlef Weigel, Director of the Department of Molecular Biology at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, makes a major contribution to this success. Using Arabidopsis thaliana as model system, Weigel studies the molecular mechanisms that enable plants to adapt to environmental conditions and those that underlie plant immunity. He has published a large number of reports in renowned scientific journals and is the most cited plant researcher in Europe.*
The number of scientific papers cited by other scientists is generally taken as a measure of quality. Between 2000 and 2010, the majority of highly cited papers in the area of plant research were published by scientists from the German Max Planck Institutes.** Why is this so? What is it that makes the German research landscape so attractive for plant researchers? For Detlef Weigel, the main reason is that basic research in Germany is generally better funded than in the United States for example where early application of results is the main funding criterion. This means that funding is predominantly awarded to biomedical projects.
Applications for Max Planck Society (MPG) and Deutsche Forschungsgesellschaft (German Research Foundation; DFG) grants are quite different, as Weigel explains: “The Max Planck Society and Deutsche Forschungsgesellschaft attach far greater importance to how interesting the proposed research project is; there is less emphasis – at least initially - on the actual application of the findings.” “The idea behind MPG and DFG funding is that excellent basic research needs to precede any form of application,” continues Weigel, pointing out that this also results in greater appreciation of plant research.
Weigel and his team are specifically focused on solving fundamental research issues. They use the plant Arabidopsis thaliana (thale cress) to study the molecular mechanisms plants use to adapt to their environment. They are interested in diverse aspects such as flowering time and plant development. At present, Weigel and his team are particularly interested in the immune system of Arabidopsis thaliana. In 2013, Weigel was awarded one of the coveted ERC Advanced Grants by the European Research Council. The grant provides 2.5 million euros over a period of five years for Weigel’s IMMUNEMESIS project. The ERC awards Advanced Grants to scientists who combine innovative approaches with outstanding research in projects that have the potential for scientific breakthrough thanks to ambitious ideas and unconventional methods.
The word IMMUNEMESIS is an amalgam of Nemesis, the Greek goddess of revenge, and the word immunity and alludes to the fact that too much immunity has an adverse effect. “In plants, there is generally a trade-off between immunity and growth, and immune system activation is often associated with impaired development,” explains Weigel. The scientists will initially focus on this trade-off in natural inbred Arabidopsis strains and will subsequently study whether hybrids, i.e. offspring of two such inbred strains, are characterized by a disproportionate enhancement or suppression of their immune response. This is important as many plant varieties used in agriculture are hybrids. The second fundamental question Weigel hopes to solve relates to the relationship between the genetic variation of the immune system and pathogens to which the plants are exposed. Weigel himself is quite surprised by the findings: “You would think that with a plant that has been studied as intensively as Arabidopsis, everything is already known, including its natural pathogens. But this is absolutely not the case.” The immune system is characterized by huge genetic variation. Plants carry resistance genes that they use to defend themselves against pathogens. In a field with plants of a single species, you will find groups of plants with completely different resistance genes. “Will such plants also be attacked by different microbes?” asks Weigel.
Even though it will be a long time before the researchers’ findings are turned into application, Weigel is convinced that it will eventually happen: once they have understood the underlying mechanisms, it will be possible to produce plants that are able to defend themselves against enemies and keep growing at the same time.
Weigel and his team use state-of-the-art DNA sequencing techniques to find answers to such questions. These high-throughput methods enable researchers to sequence the genomes of different Arabidopsis strains within a relatively short time as well as to determine the location of DNA-binding proteins in the Arabidopsis genome. However, these methods generate a vast amount of data. Extracting useful information is therefore a huge challenge. Weigel has set up a research team consisting of people with a broad range of different skills: scientists who are mainly focused on molecular issues and others who are mainly involved in data analysis. “I have biologists, computer scientists, mathematicians and physicists in my team,” says Weigel, pointing out that some team members are experienced in both areas and are therefore able to bring the two together.
Weigel is also delighted to have two outstanding cooperation partners in Tübingen who are both able to decipher huge amounts of data. He has been working with Prof. Dr. Bernhard Schölkopf, director at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems, for the past ten years and considers him to be one of the leading figures in the field of data-mining worldwide. His other cooperation partner is Prof. Dr. Daniel Husan, a professor of algorithms in bioinformatics at the University of Tübingen, whose methods enable Weigel’s team to quickly compare DNA sequences with each other.
While plant research enjoys high status in Germany, the general public tends to have a rather critical attitude towards genetic engineering. Although Weigel’s research itself has little to do with genetic engineering, he is a plant researcher and therefore has a natural interest in the topic. “We are facing the challenge that around 30% more people than today will have to be fed in the future, and we will not be able to do this without genetic engineering,” says Weigel. Although he does not regard genetic engineering as a panacea, he still believes that it is an important part of our efforts to feed the world in the future and that it will contribute to progress in this area, in combination with improved agricultural practices and traditional plant breeding.
* LabTimes, 07/2013
Prof. Dr. Detlef Weigel
Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology
Department of Molecular Biology