THE EMBO MEETINg 2012
Life would be impossible without membranes
￼Why is it important to study biomembranes?
Cells are full of membranes and life would be impossible without them or some sort of simi- lar structure separating different parts of the cell from each other. In addition, many drug targets are membrane proteins or proteins associated with membranes which makes them even more attractive for study.
How have methods used to study biomembranes recently changed?
There has been much more emphasis on
membrane lipids lately. This has also led to a lot of new ideas about protein-lipid interactions. Like in so many other areas, structural biology has become very important. We now see rapid growth in this area and this has rejuvenated inter- est in biomembrane research.
How do you implement these new methodologies in your own research?
We do not usually develop new methods in
my group. We use the methods that are easily accessible and robust to address issues concern- ing the biogenesis of membrane proteins. It’s like when a new computer comes out - you wait for the little defects to be straightened out and you wait for it to become a robust technology. Our approach is to tackle questions that interest us in a very systematic way, and this may in some way make us a little different from many other research groups in the field.
You are a director of the Centre for Biomembrane Research in Stockholm. What were the challenges setting up such a multidisciplinary centre?
The centre has become multidisciplinary
almost by default. The grant we received to start the centre allowed us to focus very clearly on biomembrane research. We recruited a couple
of new groups, and funded some projects we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. It creat- ed a common mission amongst the mostly young group leaders. That has made the environment interesting enough that many young scientists coming to Sweden after their postdocs are now asking if they can join our centre, often bringing their own money.
What are the benefits of a multidisciplinary environment?
People like the idea that everybody does a
somewhat different thing. For example, as a bench scientist it’s quite easy to find bioinformat- ics expertise if you need it. You can also convince a crystallographer to work on an experiment with you. It has been great fun to see all these young people working together and enjoying them- selves. Of course, they are always under pressure of making a career, but overall the multidisci- plinary approach has yielded a good return on investment in terms of generating a scientific environment that people enjoy.
What is the research culture like in Sweden?
A lot of emphasis is placed on individual- ity and independence. We tend to have smaller individual groups that form a department, rather than one or two big groups. The head of depart- ment does not have much of a say when it comes to the science, because almost all of the science is funded by external grants that go to the individu- al principal investigators. There are some issues. For example, we do not have a real tenure system yet, and as a young assistant professor it is very
gUNNAR VON HEIJNE is Director of the Center for Biomembrane Research at Stockholm University. He has been an EMBO Member since 1994, was a member of
the EMBO Council from 2004 to 2009, and a member of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry from 1998 to 2009. In 2012, he was awarded the Accomplishment by a Senior Scientist Award by the International Society for Computational Biology. Katja Linssen spoke to him at ISBM 2012 where he received the award.
uncertain what is going to happen. However, the funding is respectable as Sweden is one of the few countries where the public finances are still in pretty good shape.
Going up one level from Sweden to Europe. What do you currently see as the major developments in scientific research in Europe?
One thing that made a big difference to basic science in the European context is the European Research Council (ERC). EMBO played an impor- tant part in making the ERC become a reality. ERC really means a lot, not just to the individual researcher, but to the department and the univer- sity if someone receives an ERC grant, either a Starting grant or an Advanced grant. So, I just hope that the ERC can continue doing things the way they have done so far.
What role should EMBO play in Europe?
EMBO has multiple roles. Within the scientific community the Young Investigator Programme has made a real difference. It is not primarily about the funding, but it means so much for a young person to be recognized and also to become part of that network. A couple of people in my imme- diate vicinity are EMBO Young Investigators. So I have seen what it meant to them and how much they got out of it. And then of course EMBO can assume a political role. Because it is independent and based on scientific excellence it can speak for the European scientific community and has a clear agenda.
￼Latest paper by the von Heijne lab published in October this year:
A biphasic pulling force acts on transmembrane helices during translocon-mediated membrane integration
Nurzian Ismail, Rickard Hedman, Nina Schiller, Gunnar von Heijne
Nature Structural & Molecular Biology 19(10): 1018 – 1022
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© Max Brouwers