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Researcher Spotlight: Dr Bungo Akiyoshi

19 May, 2014

Dr Bungo Akiyoshi The Wellcome Trust is widely known as a large research funder, but it’s the people that make us what we are. Our Researcher Spotlights introduces you to some of the great people that we fund, so you can get a better idea of the real lives of the scientists and find out more about their research. Dr Bungo Akiyoshi is a Royal Society/Wellcome Trust Sir Henry Dale Fellow and group leader in the biochemistry department at the University of Oxford. We asked him what it was that drew him to a career in biology…

What are you working on?

I am interested in understanding the mechanism of how one cell becomes two cells. Despite the advances in science and technology, nobody has succeeded in creating living organisms from scratch, suggesting that we do not fully understand “life” yet. This is what motivated me to become a biologist and my dream is to create artificial life some day. I have been studying how cells accurately separate replicated chromosomes during cell division. This process is driven by a large protein assembly on centromeric DNA, called the kinetochore, which binds dynamic microtubule polymers. It was previously assumed that all eukaryotes utilise common components for building the core of kinetochores, but I discovered that trypanosomes possess a unique set of kinetochore proteins. Currently my group is trying to understand how these unconventional proteins carry out kinetochore functions.

Why is your work important?

Kinetochore diagramBiologists can learn a lot of lessons from uniqueness and difference.An analogy is that studying extra-terrestrial life (if any) would help to understand life on earth in a fundamental manner. Of course trypanosomes are not ET, but their kinetochores turned out to be quite different from any other organism. Because kinetochore functions are still the same (to separate chromosomes by interacting with centromeric DNA and microtubule polymers), by studying how the unique proteins fulfil these tasks in trypanosomes, we are trying to understand what aspects are really important for building the molecular machine that separates chromosomes.

What do you hope the impact of your work will be?

From a basic sciences standpoint, I hope we will gain important insights into the mechanism of chromosome inheritance by studying unique kinetochore proteins in trypanosomes. From an etiological perspective, I hope that our work will lead to the development of effective drugs against trypanosomes and related species as they cause serious diseases (such as sleeping sickness in humans and nagana in livestock animals, Chagas disease and leishmaniasis) that affect millions of people around the world. Because trypanosome kinetochore proteins are quite different from human proteins, they are an attractive drug target against these diseases. I am pursuing this possibility in collaboration with other groups.

How did you come to be working on this topic/in this field?

As an undergraduate student, I read through the famous textbook “Molecular Biology of the Cell” by Alberts et al. I came to realise that what intrigued me most were the microtubule-based processes, so I joined Yoshi Watanabe’s group in Tokyo to study fission yeast kinetochores as an undergraduate student. Although I really enjoyed the research there, I could not afford to pay tuition to graduate school in Japan and had to leave. Luckily I got into Sue Biggins’ lab in Seattle to pursue a PhD studying budding yeast kinetochores. I then joined Keith Gull’s lab in Oxford as a postdoc to learn about trypanosomes and identify their kinetochore proteins. This is how I came to work on trypanosome kinetochores in the UK. It is interesting that I kept moving to different cities roughly every five years since my birth, so let’s see which city I may head to next.

How has Wellcome funding helped you?

When my postdoc project was going well, I was thinking of applying for so-called “Fellows programs” in other countries to set up my own group. I had only been in the UK for one year at that time and didn’t think I was eligible to apply for any equivalent position in the UK. But Prof Kim Nasmyth told me that the Wellcome Trust is very flexible and encouraged me to apply for Wellcome funding and set up my group in his department. So the Wellcome Trust hugely influenced my career. Without its funding, I may not be in the UK now. Trypanosomes - image courtesy of Dr Akiyoshi

What’s the most frequently asked question about your work?

“Why (the heck) do you work on trypanosomes?” I understand that people ask this question because trypanosomes are not a mainstream model organism at the moment. But I think people will soon realise how great trypanosomes are to understand various biological processes.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

I hated biology for a long time because I thought it’s nothing but memorising names and drawing sketches (I’m terrible at drawing!). Instead I liked physics and chemistry because they explain phenomena in a logical manner. A paradigm shift occurred when I took molecular biology classes as an undergraduate student, where I learned how genetic information is stored in DNA (double-helix, triplet genetic code) and transmitted to offspring (chromosome replication and separation). Since then I have been in love with biology.

What keeps you awake at night?

Cries of my  five month old son! It is hard to believe that he originated with a single cell 14 months ago.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

“Choose right tools and right organisms that meet your purposes” by Tsuneyoshi Kuroiwa. “High risk, high return!” by Toshi Tsukiyama.

The chain reaction question, set by our previous Research Spotlight participant Dr Lian Thomas, is this: What’s the funniest thing that ever happened to you at work?

Unfortunately it is not something I can answer here for too many reasons. I’ll tell you elsewhere!

 You can find out more about Bungo Akiyoshi’s work on his work profile and you can also follow him on Twitter. Two of his publications that you might be interested in are: Discovery of unconventional kinetochores in kinetoplastids and Evolutionary cell biology of chromosome segregation: insights from trypanosomes

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