Jochen Wittbrodt is a Principal Investigator at COS (Centre for Organismal Studies) Heidelberg. He is also a member of the CellNetworks Cluster of Excellence, the collaboartive research centres SFB873 on stem cells wnt the SFB1324 and the HBIGS graduate school. His team’s work is supported by funds from a variety of public sources, including the DFG, the BMBF and the European Commission via the European Research Council ERC.
Jochen visited the CABD last year invited by Juan Rámon Martinez-Morales, PI at CABD, GEM-DMC2 and a former post doctoral fellow. We had the chance to talk with him.
Please explain the key points of your research.
It’s not focused…So 2 or 3 points wouldn’t be sufficient, but I can pick one topic, one of the things I’m going talk today is maybe a crazy, unbelievable project, about the genetics of individuality. We have it all in our genes. We want to understand that want we have in our genes makes us the way we are. We are using fish. The natural experiment is identical twins. Identical twins when they grow up under identical conditions they look very much alike. But if you bring them to different environments (you can’t do that with humans) they show very pronounced differences. They have the same genome, but depending on the environment the expression of the genome results in a very different person. We want to do that in a systematic way. The idea that we had was to use fish. It’s going to be lengthy. We went to natural populations of medaka. Medaka is a fish that you can be inbreed, in contrast to zebrafish, and that is likely due to its biology. Medaka populations in Japan they go through a thinning out every summer, when the Monsoon comes, it washes out the fish from the rice paddies, and there’s only a few fish left to re-start the colony. Which means they go through bottlenecks every year. It is probable that they are genetically selected to be able to inbreed. We found one of the populations that was not structured with an even distribution for polymorphisms. We emptied the pond and we generated initially 300 lines inbreeded lines, and finally 100 lines. After sequence all the lines, now we can ask for anything we are interested in. Brain size is that something we want to ask the genetic basis of? If you measure brain size across the panel and correlate brain size with the genotype and get information. We are more advanced now studying heartbeat. The most exciting thing for me is that now you can tackle behavior. With standard genetic screen, you only can get monogenic traits. Now we have a tool you can address polygenic traits.
You are running a lab for some years now, very successful! What is your philosophy for running a lab? Which are the key factors to succeed?
My philosophy is to take care of people. My lab is running on brains. It’s not a hierarchical structure. I want to use and take advantage of the ideas of my collaborators. You see your team members as collaborators not as people that work for you. You can instruct people, you can motivate people, you can tell them to do things. But if they are not happy doing things, they are not going to be creative. I want their creativity! That’s why I try to (in the first place) find out (even if they don’t know) what they can to best and then support them in doing the thing they do best. That’s my philosophy! I have seen labs that are very hierarchical, a single person gives all the topic and things, and it’s not my way. And this way it has been very successful!
Outside your lab, were you also the director of the center COS-Heidelberg?
I’m not a director anymore. I was a founder and acting-managing director and co-director for 6 years. Then we installed a director-rotator ship. With your experience, what are the big challenges that institutes are facing for their science to thrive? You have to be attractive in the science that you are doing. Attractive means that you should attract the best brains. To attract the best students, you need to educate them first. We are in a university setting, more than an institute, it’s the merge of the former zoology and botany department, the heart of the university education. The majority of university education is directed to undergrads. In the last 10 years we have been developing an entirely new science oriented-teaching program, very attractive. We have strong competition, very established places in Heidelberg. We needed to be more attractive than them, it couldn’t be just done with money, we had to be good teaching and in the research projects.
What do you think is the future of Developmental Biology in the genomic era?
One thing that we are seeing, creating a genome doesn’t tell you how it works. All those tools only make sense if you can put them in context. Developmental biology, which is in closed intertwine with maybe stem cell biology, organoids. Often people after doing organoids and they see the embryos, they ask: why don’t we do embryos? The embryos do it so much better. There is a strong angle of Developmental Biology, we can really use it to understand how things work and then translated it maybe to an organoid setting. Without understanding the real basis, the other thing is just an engineering approach. It is peripheral correlated but not really reflecting the real nature. If you want to do treatments in the future it will be in the organisms, not in an organoid… You need an organismal context. The cost of organism studies is the cost of reflecting the real nature. The idea of having the organisms in context, not only of all the cells types, tissues, organs in one organism but also in the context with the environment.
Thanks Jochen for your time!
Check his webpage!