EMBO MEMBERS – INTERVIEW
Stem cell homeostasis at the baker’s
Camera instead of test tubes – this is the trade that BENNY SHILO took on in September 2011, when he left active research to concentrate on photography as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in the United States.
Shilo, a molecular genetics professor at the Weizmann Institute and a long-serving member of EMBO, aims to reach out to a
general audience by using photographs of every- day life as metaphors for complex biological processes. He displayed his work, which includes dozens of pictures, at a show at Radcliffe and at a show at the Harvard Allston education portal, before returning to his lab in June this year. In an interview with EMBOencounters, he explains why he thinks that understanding developmental biology is essential even for non-scientists.
Professor Shilo, what is the idea behind your project? Biological research, especially when deal-
ing with whole organisms, produces images of astounding beauty. Because of their aesthetic value, such images are extensively shown to the public. However, the biological principles they represent are seldom the basis for their selection and presentation.
I am presenting an approach that builds on the viewers’ sensual experience, placing the viewer in the same position as the cells making the developmental decisions. In other words, the viewers will understand the way cells “think” at different junctions in the “micro world,” based on their own experience in parallel situations.
Can you give a few examples?
One example is stem cell homeostasis. I went to a bakery, where the starter yeast dough is continuously maintained, and used as a perma- nent supply for making the bread. The concept of maintaining a source while using it in parallel to generate the final product is conveyed by this metaphor, and presented in an image showing the starter dough, and the making of the bread. This metaphor was used to help explain how stem cells provide a continuous source of differ- entiated cells in the body.
Another set of images refers to the lateral inhibition that occurs between cells and which is mediated by the Notch pathway. The Notch path- way is a highly conserved cell signalling pathway that is present in most multicellular organisms. The Notch mutant phenotype, where an excess of nerve cells is generated when “lateral inhibition”
fails, can be illustrated as a beach with sunshades that are placed right next to each other.
Do you take a picture and then decide how to use it or do you have a certain choreographed sequence on your mind when you set off with your camera? Since the purpose of the project is to convey
the principles of developmental biology to the broad public in a way that will be effective, and yet as accurate as possible, I usually start from the scientific principle I want to present. Then I think of paradigms from the human world. With the analogies in mind, I go out and photograph them. In the past year, I was continuously looking at the world with an eye for the analogies I had in mind, and found them in unexpected places.
How did you become interested in public outreach efforts? From my numerous encounters with the lay
public, including high-school students, teachers, adults attending evening courses and Weizmann Institute donors, I realised that there is a deep lack of knowledge and understanding about recent biological breakthroughs. Some of it is rooted in lack of knowledge of basic biological principles.
For example, the concept of deep similarities between flies and humans is totally underappreci- ated. The same is true for the notion of generating a complex body plan by successive interactions
The concept of stem cells homeostasis can be illustrated by showing how starter yeast dough in a bakery is used. In both cases, the source is maintained while employed in parallel to generate the final product. Pictures by Benny Shilo (top) and C. Cerveny & S. Wilson (left)
between cells based only on guidelines from the genome, or the evolution of pattern diversi- ty while maintaining these conserved elements. Once properly and didactically presented, these concepts are intuitive and although surprising at first, can be easily grasped.
Why is it important for the general audience to understand fundamental research in developmental biology? We are closer than we might think to the day
when people will have their individual genome sequenced, with the ability to predict genetic predispositions and possible diseases, as well as implementing “personalised medicine” where treatments are adjusted to their genomic hall- marks. The extended use of stem cells or dedif- ferentiated cells derived from one’s own body to replace defective cells and organs is also antici- pated. People will be faced with medical choices and decisions, which should hopefully be based on their partial knowledge and appreciation of the subject matter.
Did the time-out at Radcliffe change your attitude as an active scientist? I think that the experience of this year will
have a long-term impact. The need to explain the essence of development by the metaphors forced me to think critically about the underlying scien- tific concepts. It also allowed me to take a more global “bird’s eye” view of developmental biology, in contrast to normal scientific research, where we focus on one system in great detail. Finally, the challenge of presenting the concepts to the public will be an ongoing effort, with future exhi- bitions, and possibly a book and a web site.
EMBOencounters | Summer 2012 | email@example.com 5
© Benny Shilo