ChatSci Series 5: Discussion Speaker Interview

Our next ChatSci discussion speaker, Uriel, is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Edinburgh whose research relates to genetic modification of crops. Inspired to become a scientist after accompanying his uncle on field trips as a child, Uriel is interested in understanding how we can use genetic tools to improve crop breeding. Join us at ChatSci on Monday 22nd October to hear more about his fascinating research!

Briefly summarise your field of research:

“I study circadian rhythms, or biological clocks, in plants. Like animals, plants have a 24-hour biological clock that allows them to anticipate changes in environmental conditions such as light and temperature. This means that plants can track night and day, track changes in the seasons and change their behaviours accordingly to improve their access to light. The biological clock is made up of several different genes which are switched on or off at precise times.

I work on the shade avoidance response i.e. the way a plant responds when it is shaded by other plants surrounding it. This means that a plant can sense neighbouring plants and change its growth to receive more light. We would like to understand how the genes that make up this part of the clock work.”

Tell us a bit about your education:

“I did my undergraduate degree in Genomics and Computational Biology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. I then moved to Edinburgh to do my MSc in Systems and Synthetic Biology and ended up staying because I fell in love with the clock! I then did my PhD at Edinburgh University studying biological clocks in plants and I am now doing a postdoc in the same field but in a different lab.”

Why is your research important?

“By studying plant behaviour, we can identify the genes that make up each part of the biological clock. Therefore, if we want to domesticate new crops, we can introduce specific genetic mutations that alter the clock. These mutations can be specifically designed to produce crops with desirable traits such as improved crop yield. With current advances in genetics this can be done incredibly quickly (in a matter of weeks or months) and precisely. This would be a major improvement from our current method of breeding the crops with the best traits.

A fascinating paper came out recently whereby six genes were mutated in the ancestors of the tomatoes we eat today. These mutations caused the ancestral tomatoes to become the same as present day tomatoes in terms of yield and fruit size. This study really highlights the impact that genetics research can have on agriculture.”

What made you want to work in this field?

“Biology is strong in my family – my dad is a GP and my uncle is an ecologist. When I was a child my uncle used to take me along with him on his field trips. I have a distinct memory of being in the lab with him and walking around on the bench looking through a microscope. I also had an early interest in maths and computers and I’ve managed to combine this with biology by using mathematical and computational models in my work.”

Is there anyone in your field who is an inspiration to you?

“I really admire my PhD supervisor Andrew Millar. He is one of the leading clock research scientists in the world and has just been appointed Chief Scientific Advisor for Agriculture and Forestry with the Scottish Government. He’s a fantastic scientist but is also a really nice person and cares about other people.”

What do you like to do in your spare time?

“I really enjoy travelling and have been going away to conferences a lot recently. I’m also quite active and enjoy roller blading, ice skating and cycling.”

If you’d like to hear more about Uriel’s research, join us on Monday 22nd October at Harry’s Southside, 6.30pm.

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