Professor Rudolf Jaenisch, MIT biology professor and a founding member of the Whitehead Institute, was recently named by President Obama as one of the seven recipients of the National Medal of Science, the highest honor given by the U.S. government in the fields of science and engineering. Jaenisch was awarded for his work on epigenetic regulation, the biological processes that affect how genetic information is translated into cell structures without changing the genes themselves. Last Friday, Jaenisch sat down with The Tech to discuss his research and inspiration:
The Tech: Tell me a bit about your background. What was your academic experience like in high school and college, and how has it affected your current work?
Jaenisch: I grew up in Germany. I went to a high school that specialized in Latin and Greek, so at the time I did not take many natural science courses, such as biology or chemistry. In my pre-college years, I therefore did not get as much of an academic foundation in the sciences. However, I still remained connected to science because my father was a physician. I went to medical school afterwards and finished my doctorate in medicine from the University of Hamburg, but I found medicine did not appeal to me. I was interested in experimental science and molecular biology instead, and that has been my focus in research since.
TT: What prior research stimulated your interest in epigenetic regulation?
RJ: When I was a postdoctorate student back in the 1970s, I was working with tumor viruses and wondered why the virus created just skin tumors and not tumors in other parts of the body, such as the liver and brain. Does the tumor virus infect other cells but not transform them? … I read a paper that discussed chimeric mice — mice with cells that originated from different zygotes. The mice were created by aggregating a black mouse and white mouse embryo, so that the offspring mice were striped. What interested me in the process was [that] mice could be created from embryos that were manipulated in a petri dish.
I thought that integrating a virus into an early mice cell would cause the virus to be spread to new cells that were created. But instead I found that although the virus was clearly expressed in adult mice, it remained silent in embryos. There must have been a developmental regulation in the cells that could support virus replication. From here came the idea of epigenetic regulation — the virus would become modified as cells multiply.
TT: Cam you discuss some of the recent issues you have worked with in epigenetic regulation?
RJ: When I came to Boston and began working in the Whitehead Institute, it was already possible to make a mutation of the enzyme transferase, and put it into cells. Mice deficient in this embryo died early in development, proving the importance of methylation in development. This was the background from which I studied the role of epigenetics in cancer and chromosome activation.
Dolly was created from epigenetic regulation — she was made from a skin cell that was put into an egg of a new sheep, which led to the creation of a new sheep. If this is to be done with humans, you will need human eggs as well. However, we found we could take a skin cell, treat it, and make pluripotent cells to make a new organism. These induced pluripotent stem cells [iPS cells] have the ability to differentiate into different cells of the body, though they cannot create a completely new organism. This technique can revolutionize medicine, because you can study disease from the iPS cells of sick patients.
TT: Do you have any advice for students who are aspiring scientists or researchers?
RJ: Students should always follow their interests and be courageous to look for answers to questions they are interested in. Scientific research is a risky business, but you’re bound to get satisfying results if you are passionate about what you do. One challenge you will face in research is that funding favors those who do bandwagon research. But if you focus on your interests and solutions to research problems instead of on the actual paper or job, you will find the process to be extremely satisfying.