By Sascha Karberg
'Imagine a bridge has collapsed and you have to reconstruct it from its parts, but you have no idea what 70 percent of its parts do', says Maya Schuldiner, researcher at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. Medical practitioners face a similar problem when treating a sick person, as they do not know what the function of 70 percent of the human body’s proteins is. 'Proteins are the building blocks of life, and perform all the vital processes in the body, but of the 120,000, we only know the function of 30 percent', says Schuldiner. 'Before we can make any progress in medicine, we have to understand the basal processes and find out what every single protein does.'
Until recently, it took researchers about five years to discover the function of an unknown protein. Schuldiner has accelerated this process a hundredfold by using robots that can perform a thousand experiments per day, which would have taken a doctoral student years to do. In the meantime, Schuldiner’s laboratory is deciphering the function of two to three proteins per year.
The key to knowledge – collaboration
From a technical point of view, a far greater number of proteins can be deciphered per year. The robots produce more data than the dozen co-workers in Schuldiner’s laboratory can observe, understand, and interpret. Despite the robots’ acceleration of the experimentation, the human brain is still required to understand the results. 'This capacity is our bottle neck', says Schuldiner. She consequently relies on international collaboration, making her robots unconditionally available to other laboratories. 'In this way, more data can be analysed and more protein functions be deciphered in a shorter time.' In the last two years, Schuldiner has collaborated with 30 laboratories.
One of these is Marius Lemberg’s laboratory at the Center for Molecular Biology, Heidelberg University. 'The way our collaboration developed, is a great story about friendship in science', says Lemberg, who learned about Schuldiner when her laboratory published information about a gene called Ypf1. His interest was aroused and a mutual colleague initiated their contact. 'Since then, we work together instead of competing.'
Lemberg researches protein-degrading enzymes so-called proteases in the cell membrane. Ypf1 is a protease involved in the regulation of nutrient uptake through the cell membrane, a process involving, among others, the development of Alzheimer’s. Without Ypf1, too many proteins accumulate in the membrane acting as nutrient transporters. As a result, the cell’s nutrient balance goes haywire.
Understanding such relationships requires biochemical, cell biological, and molecular biological techniques. 'Input from the Schuldiner laboratory has helped us improve our standards regarding modern yeast genetics', says Lemberg. Schuldiner maintains, 'I appreciated the collaboration specifically, because Marius Lemberg is one of the most important experts in the area of membranous proteases.' In terms of the German-Israeli collaboration, Lemberg and Schuldiner concur, 'The collaboration allowed us to achieve a high scientific standard.'
Creativity from a sense of security
Schuldiner is no stranger to the international research community. Researchers from many countries work at the Weizmann Institute of Science. For six years Schuldiner worked as postdoctoral student at the University of California in San Francisco, but then moved back home – she missed Israel, her family, her friends, her language, her culture. 'Science is like art. You have to be in a place of emotional security to be creative.' She nevertheless hesitated to raise her children in a politically insecure country. 'I was worried to think that my sons would have to join the army and get hurt or, equally as bad, hurt others.' Nobody wants to raise children in such an environment. 'But ultimately every country has its problems and, in the end, the relationship with our homeland gives us so much strength that I preferred to raise my children in a country where they are welcome and a part of the society.'
After finishing school, Schuldiner originally wanted to become a medical practitioner. She had even been allocated a medical study place at a university. While on holiday in Thailand, two weeks before the beginning of the first semester, she read a few popular scientific books about physics, chemistry, and biology on the beach. 'And suddenly I realised that I did not want to learn what others had discovered, but wanted to make those discoveries myself', Schuldiner explains. 'This realisation stuck me with such force that I changed from medicine to biology a day before the start of the semester.' Who knows where protein research would be today if Schuldiner had read the wrong book on that beach.