4. November 2021 | Magazine:

In Search of Drug Candidates in the Plant Genome Professor Boas Pucker heads the Plant Biotechnology and Bioinformatics Team

Since October 1, 2021, Junior Professor Boas Pucker has been building up the Plant Biotechnology and Bioinformatics Group at the Institute of Plant Biology. The focus is on substances that plants have evolved, for example as colorants for flowers or as defense substances against infections. To this end, Professor Pucker analyses the plant genome, observes individual DNA molecules and searches for genes that might be suitable for the production of active substances. Professor Pucker recently worked at the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Cambridge in the UK and at the universities in Bochum and Bielefeld.

Appointment as junior professor: Boas Pucker (m.) with President Prof. Angela Ittel and Prof. Christoph Jacob, Dean of the Faculty of Life Sciences. Photo credit: Markus Hörster/TU Braunschweig

Professor Pucker, have you arrived well at the TU Braunschweig?

Yes, I have already had exciting discussions with my new colleagues. In general, there is a great willingness to help and I have already received a lot of useful information. On 11 October, I was even accepted as a BRICS member. Of course, I am looking forward to meeting many more researchers and lecturers in the coming weeks. My bioinformatics research is already underway and hopefully, after the renovation work in the lab is completed, the molecular biology work can start soon. I have already met some students, but my first lecture is not planned until next year.

Why did you choose the TU Braunschweig?

The Braunschweig Integrated Centre of Systems Biology (BRICS) and numerous non-university research institutes were important reasons for my application. The opportunities to develop my research on specialized metabolites of plants for the identification of active substances against infections – in plants and humans – are thus very good.

What exactly do you deal with in your research?

The most vivid part of my research is plant dyes, which are omnipresent in the form of colourful flowers or coloured leaves. However, these dyes are only the tip of the iceberg, because there are numerous invisible substances produced by plants. In my research, I investigate how plants produce these substances and how this ability has evolved over the course of evolution. Many of these substances serve as a defense for plants against infections by bacteria or fungi. Therefore, it is obvious that these substances can find use in fighting infections.

The basis for these analyses is the decoding of the genetic material of a plant. I already have several years of experience in this and would like to continue this at TU Braunschweig. To do this, I use a technology that “observes” a single DNA molecule as it migrates through a nanopore. The comparison of sequences of different plant species helps me to elucidate evolutionary processes. This yields clues to interesting genes that could be responsible for the production of drug candidates.

What made you decide to do research in this area?

I became interested in the study of gene function early on and found my way to plant biosynthetic pathways through this. The more I do research on this, the more I am fascinated by the enormous diversity of different substances produced by plants. I would like to understand the molecular genetic basis and evolution of this complexity. For example, I am interested in the molecular genetic causes of differently coloured leaves, flowers or fruits on different plants of the same species. I am also motivated by the possibility of translating the results of this basic research directly into applications, because many plant pigments have health-promoting effects as components in our food.

What was your best experience as a scientist?

I had many great experiences and that motivated me to stay in science. I especially appreciate the many interactions with other researchers. However, there is one recent example from my time in the home office that I would like to share. Since my bachelor’s thesis, I have been interested in the mutual exclusion of two plant pigments in the Caryophyllales, a group of about 12,000 plant species. Within a day, through bioinformatics analysis, I found a molecular mechanism that could explain this phenomenon. It was not a chance find, but the effort required for the underlying analysis was small. This example shows very well that scientific progress is not uniform and can hardly be planned or predicted. So there are always nice surprises!

What constitutes good teaching for you?

Learning benefits from a positive attitude towards the learning content and enthusiasm of the teachers can contribute to this. I therefore see both fun in the courses and an enthusiasm for my own subject as essential elements. In addition, the connection between current research and teaching is very important to me. This not only imparts knowledge, but also clarifies the path to it and the dynamics of the state of research. In general, I would like to impart qualifications and not exclusively knowledge.

What would you like to give students to take with them?

Data-driven research is becoming increasingly important, not only in the university environment. Therefore, skills in dealing with large data sets and in developing analytical methods are an important qualification. I would like to offer corresponding courses in the near future.

Stays abroad were valuable experiences for me. There are various possibilities for funding and I am happy to arrange contacts for research stays.

A team-oriented approach to work is currently very much in demand. One possibility in biology is to participate in iGEM, the most important competition in synthetic biology. I have been involved myself for several years and would be happy to support a team at TU Braunschweig.

Plants are fascinating. Due to the biotechnological potential of plants with regard to the discovery and production of new active substances, plant research could also prove to be the right path for students interested in medicine. I am always happy about interest in my research and would of course like to offer motivated students a thesis in my group.

Thank you very much!