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An interview with Maria Leptin

 Maria Leptin

Maria Leptin is full Professor at the Institute of Genetics, University of Cologne and Group Leader at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg. In 2010 she was appointed Director of the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO). She received her PhD in 1983 and carried her postdoctoral work at the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge, UK. From 1989-1994 she was Group leader at the Max Planck Institute in Tübingen. The Leptin group studies the mechanisms and forces that determine cell shape in Drosophila and uses zebrafish to analyse innate immune signalling. 

How did you first become interested in developmental biology? 

It was at the end of my PhD - which was in immunology - when I had to decide what to do for a postdoc. I used to go to seminars at the Basel Biozentrum, and had heard about germline transformation in Drosophila, from Alan Spradling, I think, and also about genome walking. The other thing that was very exciting at the time was transcriptional regulation. But I had a pretty open mind and interviewed with a number of people from diverse fields, also including, for example, Piet Borst. But in the end the decision to join Mike Wilcox in Cambridge was not necessarily the result of a terribly rational thought process, but a personal reaction to Mike, to the lab, the project, the town. And I’ve never regretted it.   


  1. Which findings are you most proud of? 

I’m not sure whether it’s about being proud or about which discoveries were the most exciting to make. There were some at every stage. My thesis advisor Fritz Melchers insisted that every student publish a major piece of their work alone, as their own achievement. For me that was a description of the monoclonal antibodies I made to study B-cell activation. It was a bit of struggle, and I guess I was indeed proud of that. As a postdoc it must have been the discovery that the Drosophila ‘position specific antigens’ were the same proteins as the vertebrate integrins that were just beginning to be described. I remember Mike Wilcox calling from a meeting in the US in the middle of the night to read out the sequence of an integrin he had just seen on a slide and to ask if it corresponded to the one I had got as peptide sequence (together with Ruedi Aebersold, who was in Lee Hood’s lab at the time, and had just developed peptide sequencing of Western-blotted proteins. It did match, and together with the biochemistry we had done, that clinched it. Defining the role of integrins in embryonic development together with Ruth Lehmann and others was another one. In a collaboration during a visit to UCSF, a group of us were the first to publish a 3D two-colour time lapse of Drosophila ventral furrow formation, well before GFP was introduced. And then in my own independent work, the roles of the transcription factors Twist and Snail for gastrulation was really good fun. It relied on wonderful input from others, as well, like my superb technician Barbara Grunewald, and my friend and colleague Siegfried Roth. You see a lot of my work relied on superb colleagues and collaborators. But the regulatory role of the transcription factors was actually me alone - it was so good to be able to figure that out. Doing the actual work oneself is in fact one of the most satisfying things, and that was also true much later for the family of NLR proteins in zebrafish that I discovered when I did a sabbatical at the Sanger Institute, though again I also had support from a wonderful colleague there, Kerstin Howe. And finally, more recently, working with theoreticians and physicists, like in the work I’m reporting at this meeting, has been really satisfying intellectually.  

  1. Can you tell us about the Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard foundation? 

The foundation provides mothers doing their PhD or postdoctoral work in the experimental sciences - i.e where presence in the lab is necessary, often beyond ’normal’ working hours, with small monthly stipend to buy themselves time out of doing household chores that they could pay others to do. The idea is that young mothers should of course spend time with their small children, but it should be the quality time they and the children need, whereas boring chores are not what should keep them from concentrating on their research. We care to fund excellent young women who we think have the potential to become independent researchers, and who might not be able to do so for lack of money to support them through financially difficult times. Thus, the women we support have their own living expenses already covered through full contracts or fellowships, have a functioning child care set-up, and need only that extra bit of financial help to make sure the extra burden doesn’t slow them down too much. 


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