Žurnál UP: Jaroslav Doležel: You cannot change the world on your own, but it’s good to try
If your kids are not taking firsts in school and instead they want to play guitar after school, don’t worry. Even so, they can go far – become a world-renowned scientist, even win the most important awards for science in the country. An illustrious example of this is the recipient of the 2018 Czech Mind prize, Jaroslav Doležel, who leads the Olomouc workplace of the Institute of Experimental Botany of the Czech Academy of Sciences and is the scientific director of the Centre of the Region Haná for Biotechnology and Agricultural Research.
I cannot help but start with a very important event – being given the country’s highest award for science. How did that make you feel?
To be honest, it was a mixture of feelings. Of course it was a huge surprise, I never expected anything like that. Then I realised how prestigious the award is, and how much significance it has. So it carries a certain weight and puts some responsibility on a person. However, being awarded the prize certainly made me very happy.
Much work preceded the prize, so let’s start at the beginning. Were you an ambitious and diligent middle school student?
No, I was a B student, I tried to optimise the price-performance ratio. Among other reasons, because my hobby was music. I played in a band, and always did just enough to pass the exams. I was only a good student in English, and that was due to rock ‘n’ roll. Rock music made me love English, and I excelled at it.
So you didn’t want to be a scientist as a teenager?
No, rather it was a case of choosing the right path at certain crossroads in life. I have always been lucky regarding the events and the people around me. At first I didn’t even have a clue as to what science is all about. My parents worked in agriculture, my dad was the boss at a big and successful horticultural firm. He was interested in seed production and worked with breeders – maybe there you can trace the beginnings which had an influence on my professional career. In principle, however, he evidently counted on me following in his footsteps and becoming a horticulturist.
Is that why you went to agricultural school?
That’s right, I left to study horticulture, which at the time was quite a prestigious field, at the Agricultural University. There I found myself at one of life’s crossroads. That was the time when Prof Lužný sent me for my Master of Science degree to the Institute of Experimental Botany, where I have remained to this day. I had enormous luck, coming from an agricultural background, from a village, to end up at the Academy of Science, where they carried out top research. One whiff of the Academy, and that was it for me. I was entranced by the creativity there, the possibility of discovering new things, communicating with colleagues abroad.
Tell us about you and plants? When did you start to understand each other?
I’ve never been an enthusiastic botanist, and that’s still true today. Plants interest me from the perspective of their inherited information. At grammar school I had a collection of cacti, but when I started playing in the band I sold them, which really made my dad angry. Even at our house it’s my wife who takes care of the plants, I just help out occasionally.
But agriculturally-important crops are of interest to you. How did that come about?
My life’s work began to sprout during my doctoral studies. I was dealing with transformations of hereditary information when cultivating cells in vitro. That was the moment when I became a professional geneticist. At that time the available methods were inadequate, but thanks to my supervisor, I found cytometry, which is my life-long love. I travelled daily to Brno to the pathology department in St Anne’s Hospital to measure the DNA content in cells, and I learned a lot. It was also there where I learned about flow cytometers, and after getting my doctorate, I convinced my boss to buy one. I already knew that I wanted to dedicate myself to the study of hereditary information using cytometry methods. Together with my colleagues we took the road of using flow cytometers in a number of areas in plant biology. I really enjoy discovering new things. Playing in a band also helped me with a number of technical things and got me used to working in a team.
You and your colleagues have had a significant role in decoding the genomes of barley, banana trees – and in 2018, wheat. How long did that road take and which of those crops gave you the most trouble?
So far, the banana tree has been the toughest, despite the fact it has a small genome. And maybe that’s why it interests me. If I could keep only one plant for research, I would choose the banana tree. And since you’re asking about the road, that one was long, and nobody at the beginning knew where it would lead. As I said, I loved cytometry, which we used from the start for analysing cell nuclei. However, it was the combination of cytometry and genome analysis which attracted me. It took a few years, but we figured out a method of isolating chromosomes and subsequently sorting them with the help of flow cytometry. We went that direction on purpose. I was convinced that it was the correct approach, and I wanted to apply it to plants. We began with beans and peas, but that didn’t get us much notice. Then we focused our efforts on cereals, the first being barley. We fine-tuned the method and then modified it for the much more complicated wheat genome. In 2005, an international consortium was formed to decode the bread wheat genome, and our method became the main approach.
You’ve accomplished three great goals. What challenges now lie before you?
We’re finishing the sequencing of the rye genome. It needs the final stage – decoding the genome. What interests us now is the organisation of the genome in three-dimensional space in the cell nucleus. In the meantime, we’ve analysed the genome as a linear sequence of letters. But it is not arranged like that in reality. We should rather imagine it as a twisted string with lots of loops, in which there are billions of letters. We’re now studying this, thanks among others to the research package for European projects which the Centre of the Region Haná was awarded in the Excellence in Research call. We’re going to make use of a superhigh-resolution microscope which we’re now buying. We’re going to study how the hereditary information is arranged, and what influence it has on a plant’s properties. In that respect, we’re back at the beginning, reinventing the wheel.
The results of the research should help in the breeding of crops which will have bigger yields and higher resistance to the negative effects of environment. Is that still a far-off vision?
Many things are already being done. Crop yields are decreasing due to diseases and pests. Fortunately, resistance to them usually depends on only one segment of hereditary information, which can be identified and isolated. For example, we’re now working together with several labs abroad on isolating genes resistant to crop rust and mildew. More resistant strains not only produce higher yields, but we do not have to treat them with so many pesticides and thus stress the environment with chemicals. The same applies to fertilisers. If we teach plants to use the nutrients in the soil better, we’ll again conserve nature. Through the help of genetic modification, we are also able to speed up breeding. By the way, I enjoy having visions. Once we begin to understand hereditary information, then we can try to raise plants in the future which will be able to extract nitrogen from the air or increase the effectiveness of photosynthesis and thus yields. This, however, is only possible by using genetic engineering methods.
Is this the “second green revolution” to which you often refer? When scientists will help ensure enough food for the ever-growing human population?
This process is already underway, but the European Court of Justice is erecting barriers in its path. New methods of breeding are in principle based on the ability to modify plants’ genetic information. Luckily for humanity, scientists have discovered the system CRISPR/Cas9 in bacteria, through which it’s possible to change genetic information with accuracy, like a surgeon slicing with a scalpel. This principle has been picked up by watching nature; humans have been taught by bacteria. But it’s banned. Without genetically-modified crops, we will not be able to feed mankind. Today we already know that the heart of the problem could be in Asia and especially Africa. That is where they are expecting a population explosion. We cannot significantly increase the area of cultivated land anymore, so there is nothing left but to increase yields.
What is the biggest engine driving you? The possibility of overcoming the hurdles of research, or the mission or desire to help someone?
The need to discover something new is very strong in me. But at present, it makes me very happy when I see that my work means something. It’s a kind of bonus. When I go to Africa, for instance, and see that banana plant breeders are using the method of flow cytometry and I helped introduce that, it makes me happy. You cannot change the world on your own, but it’s good to have the feeling you’re trying. Primarily, however, for a scientist basic research is essential. Without it, there would be nothing to apply.
In Olomouc you’ve established an internationally-renowned workplace, you are the scientific director of CRH. You must have had a number of lucrative offers from abroad. How is it that they have not tempted you away?
There have not been so many offers, because I have made it quite clear I’m not that interested. First, because of family, who don’t want me to live permanently abroad. The main thing, however, was that I knew what I wanted to do and how to get there. I didn’t want to leave half-way down the road. We really have excellent working conditions here. Everyone who comes from abroad to our centre – their jaws all drop in surprise. In principle, we are absolutely on par with workplaces abroad. So where would I go? I don’t have the slightest reason to do so.
Jaroslav Doležel (b. 1954)
Head of the Olomouc workplace of the Institute of Experimental Botany of the Czech Academy of Sciences and the scientific director of the Centre of the Region Haná for Biotechnology and Agricultural Research. He also works at the Department of Cell Biology and Genetics at the UP Faculty of Science.
He graduated in the field of Horticulture from the Agricultural University in Brno.
He dedicates himself to the study of hereditary information in plants, its structure, and the transformations which accompany plant evolution and the creation of new species. With his team, he is working on new methods which will simplify analysis of complex genomes, and in the framework of international projects he has participated in decoding the genome of important plant species.
The results of his scientific work have won him a number of prizes including the Czech Learned Society Prize, the Czech Academy of Sciences’ “Praemium Academiae”, and the Czech Mind award. He has published more than 300 articles in scientific journals, nearly 40 book chapters, and has edited three books in his field. His work has over 12,000 citations.
TEXT: Martina Šaradínová, FOTO: Miroslav Bednařík