In fall 2016, ASCB awarded ASCB-Gibco Emerging Leader Prizes to three cell biology researchers. ASCB introduced the prizes to honor not-yet-tenured independent investigators with outstanding scientific accomplishments and strong publication track records. The prizes were underwritten by Gibco, a brand of Thermo Fisher Scientific.
Peter Walter, 2016 ASCB President, invited each of the prize winners and each of the seven additional finalists to contribute an essay to the ASCB Newsletter. The writers were
encouraged to provide a personal statement that articulates who they are, their science, and how they got into it; to describe their major scientific accomplishments; and to discuss their “dream results” and where they see themselves in the next five years.
This issue of the Newsletter features the essay of winner Nicolas Plachta.
I am originally from Argentina but have trained in different places including Israel, Switzerland, the United States, Australia, and Singapore, where I am now based. I became interested in science relatively late and was very lucky to do my PhD with Yves-Alain Barde at the University of Basel, and my postdoc with Scott Fraser at the California Institute of Technology, both who were wonderful mentors. In Scott Fraser’s lab I learned how to use live imaging technologies. This allowed me to pioneer single cell imaging approaches to study the development of the early mouse embryo.
My lab has revealed mechanisms that regulate the fate, shape, and position of single cells in vivo, and how these mechanisms control the earliest developmental events in a mammalian organism. For example, we established quantitative imaging methods to show how transcription factors bind to their DNA targets in the living embryo and how these dynamic binding events control the pluripotent cell fate. We also discovered that the cells of the early embryo extend a new class of filopodial protrusions to pull their neighbor cells closer, and trigger the first changes in cell shape during development. Finally, we discovered how changes in the action of mechanical forces mediated by cell adhesion and cortical tension drive the formation of the pluripotent inner cell mass of the embryo.
I really enjoy discovering unexpected structures or mechanisms controlling cells and embryos in vivo, by using live imaging methods. I feel that biology has become a bit limited by “hypothesis driven” projects, and we should encourage experiments that are more driven by curiosity. So my hope for the future is to run into new problems and discoveries that keep taking us out of our comfort zone into areas we never predicted we would be working on. I am also expecting that technology will have more of a “positive destruction” effect in our work in coming years.