Transforming society through yeast genetics

Francis Crick Institute

On the whole, society is pretty positive about science. If you look at any of the surveys you will find the figures show 70 to 80% of people are in favour of science and of scientists. And if you compare that with say politicians or lawyers it’s down to 15% approval.

Scientists however cannot be complacent because they do discover things which are uncomfortable to people. We do reveal issues that are difficult to handle, like when does life start and when does life finish? Abortions, stem cells and human embryos these are discussions which have spilled out into topical discussion.

My life is a little complex. I have three jobs! I spend a surprising amount of time with my lab though, much more than people think. I spend as much time there as I do with the Royal Society or running the Crick Institute. Nevertheless I still feel guilty about it, I don’t think I spend enough time there. So I’ve really reduced and refocused what I have to do. I don’t go to many conferences for example.

I always have and still do engage with primary results. So I’m not just listening to somebody in a PowerPoint presentation and then putting that data together into a paper. I’m looking down the microscope. I’m looking at gels and at real time PCR plots. I talk about the data with my students, because everyone needs help sometimes. If my post-docs ask for a second opinion I’ll do that for them too, but I don’t want to be breathing down their necks.

I’m interested in a number of questions. What determines the cell shape of fission yeast? How does it have a sense of its own position and form? A really interesting sort of question. We’ve done decent work there, high quality papers, but we haven’t cracked it as I would like.

When I was working on the cell cycle in my 20’s and 30’s and was really hands on, things happened that had no right to happen. I might have been as lucky as hell or it might have been because I was so immersed in the research. When there was a hint of something, something at all, I took it. Now I’m more “remote”, away from the bench, and what frustrates me is that I can’t help feeling that 25 years ago I would have done more by now. So I’m a bit frustrated about that.

I am interested in the complex networks of the cell cycle. People are identifying more and more components of the cell cycle. We name the parts and we do some sort of interactive screening. We say this touches this and you form a network that looks like a London underground map.  What disturbs me is, we think we have understood something. The truth is we understand nothing; we just described what we have to consider. How can we make a value judgement and strip away what is unimportant so that we can focus on the essentials. What really matters?

Basically I can just say “Look, here is the machine. There is the manual, get on with it, play with it and work”. The MSM 400 really has been quite an important and useful addition to our lab!

Yeast geneticists invariably have to do tetrad dissection and analysis. Now that is a difficult technique. Actually when I first learned it I did it by hand without a manipulator! I was taught to do that in Switzerland, you need a steady hand for that. The piece of tech which made tetrad dissection easy for both students and post-docs in my lab was the MSM 400 because they saw it as something fun to use, so much so that they forgot to worry about how “difficult” it is picking up and pulling spores apart.

Of course the eureka moment was when we cloned CDC2 by complementation. That was incredibly tense because I knew if we were right, this was really big and equally I knew all the ways it could be wrong.

Darwin was a really interesting guy. He had a great imagination but he then supplemented it with this enormous capacity for hard work. Collecting data, observations until you could just collapsed under it, you couldn’t resist it anymore. If you read the origin of the species which people often don’t do– it is page after page of observation to support his argument.

From modern, or close to modern times, the two scientists that really did impress me were Brenner and Crick. They did some brilliant experiments, very insightful, very clever and laid the foundations for the way we think about the world. What was really embarrassing for me personally was I received the Nobel Prize before Sydney Brenner! I mean, this was an absurd fact as far as I could see. Sydney received the prize the following year and so I felt better.

I feel responsible for quite a bit. The first thing to say is this, I have always wanted to have the freedom to pursue what interests me. I realise this is an enormous privilege because I’m being paid lots of money by society to establish and run a laboratory. Therefore in some way the work I do has to be to society’s good. I feel responsible for that.

On a higher level I feel responsibility, quite seriously, for scientific endeavour in the UK. In the royal society, I’m one of the important defenders of science and the associated budget. I have done a great deal on that in the last 3-4 years of contracting budgets. Frankly science has not done too badly. The ministry of science and the Chancellor of the Exchequer are on our side.

I think scientists have a real responsibility to engage with the public. I don’t think all scientists should do that. In actual fact I think the majority of scientists shouldn’t because most of us aren’t very good at it and why should we be? But when you have people who are good or even very good at communicating their science, who can act as ambassadors, you really should nurture them. We’ve got to take public engagement really seriously.



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