The 34-year-old evolutionary biologist will receive 500.000 Dollars over the next five years from the MacArthur Foundation. The extraordinary thing about this award: The money is not tied to a special purpose, but is designed to enable the recipient to unleash her creativity and advance her science.
The biologist, who received her doctorate only four years ago, was stunned by the news that she will receive 500.000 Dollars from the MacArthur Foundation. "The phone call from the States was the biggest surprise of my life. I still can't believe it." The Foundation awards 20 to 25 Fellowships every year not just to scientists, but also to poets, artists and entrepreneurs--the only criterion for selection is the creativity of their oeuvre. The Award is designed to enable the Fellows to explore new directions, start courageous projects or advance their careers.
Her studies at the Max Planck Institute
Since 2004, Kirsten Bomblies has been a postdoc in the group of Detlef Weigel at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tuebingen, Germany. There she studies how genetic incompatibilities might contribute to the evolution of new species. Her study object is the mouse ear cress, Arabidopsis thaliana, a small annual plant that is widely distributed and that became the workhorse of plant biologists throughout the world.
Kirsten Bomblies and her colleagues found that crosses between different strains of this plant surprisingly often result in unfit progeny. They do not grow well, their leaves become yellow and they often do not manage to produce flowers. Detailed studies revealed that the immune system was inappropriately activated, even though the plants had not been attacked by fungi or bacteria. Like the human immune system, the plant immune system will normally only attack and destroy infected cells.
In the sick hybrids, however, the immune system turns against healthy tissue, perhaps because it mistook its own cells for foreign invaders. The responsible genes, which only cause sickness in the hybrids, but not in the parents, are pathogen detectors. Kirsten Bomblies emphasizes that the hybrids are not victims of faulty genes: In contrast to certain hereditary autoimmune diseases, the cause is not the inactivity of defective gene copies.
Rather, the damaging interactions result from the presence of genes that evolved differently in the two parents, and that do not properly function anymore when brought back together in the hybrid offspring. Each gene on its own is at worst harmless, if not actually beneficial for the healthy parents, as it helps them to detect and defend themselves against germs. Kirsten Bomblies guesses that the incompatibilities are only side effects of an arms race between the plant and its enemies. The unintended outcomes are reproductive barriers, which may represent the first steps to the evolution of new species.
Course of her career
Kirsten Bomblies was born in Germany, but grew up in Colorado. After she received her bachelor's degree in biology and biochemistry from the University of Pennsylvania, she worked for several years as a technician in California, in her first stint with Detlef Weigel, who was a faculty member at the Salk Institute in La Jolla at the time. Kirsten Bomblies received her PhD in 2004 from the University of Wisconsin for her work on the domestication of corn. Shortly after, she returned to the study of mouse ear cress, as postdoc in the Department of Molecular Biology of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tuebingen, Germany. Her days there are numbered, however; next July she will start her own group as an Assistant Professor at Harvard. There, she would like to continue to study the evolution of new species, but she is also planning to work with plants other than mouse ear cress.
"Although Kirsten is only 34 years old, she is already a respected scientist who is invited to many international conferences. Her studies of hybrid incompatibilities have opened a new field in evolutionary biology. I know very few scientists who have so many original and exciting ideas as Kirsten. The MacArthur Fellowship will allow her to pursue her ideas independently of scientific fashion. I am absolutely thrilled--a great honor not only for Kirsten, but also for evolutionary biology and the freedom of science in the Max Planck Society," so her mentor, Detlef Weigel, director at the Max Planck Institute.
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