Humans of Biology

Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.
Carl Sagan

 

Katharina Braeutigam
Prof. Katharina Braeutigam

The plant biologist who looks up to the stars    

 

Prof. Katharina Braeutigam moved to Canada shortly after completing her PhD at the Friedrich-Schiller University, Jena, Germany, leaving behind a different continent, country and academic system, in short, a different life. She was looking for a new perspective, another scientific landscape and found it in Canada. Two years ago, Prof. Braeutigam joined a faculty of Biology at University of Toronto Mississauga as Assistant Professor.

Prof. Braeutigam discovered that she wants to study plants in her undergrad studies, when she was amazed by “how the most fascinating organisms on Earth shape our ecosystems”. She comes originally from a strong photosynthesis, plant stress biology and plant reproductive background, from working with the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana as well as forest trees. For this, she won national and international awards, and her work has attracted attention in the scientific community and the press. As a master student, she witnessed and was actively engaged in the incipient stages of bioinformatics starting out with microarray analysis. Since then, the fascination for big data sets and sheer endless possibilities to ask new questions and to extract answers never ceased to amaze her. Now, next generation sequencing and data analysis form a central part of her work and her new lab.

 

Why plants?

Part of Prof. Braeutigam's team
Part of Prof. Braeutigam's team

Why is it interesting to work with plants? What can be learned from them? Those questions come up often in a time where most research is centered on en vogue medicine-related topics - at least so it seems. 

Almost all life on Earth depends on plants.  Plants produce the oxygen that we breathe and provide the most basic and important food staples in the world. Also, plants cannot move, they are immobile. A rather trivial fact-indeed, yet it is the starting point for a fascinating scientific journey. But why? Everyone knows from own experience that the ability to respond to changes in the environment can be of vital importance. Now imagine you cannot move, you were planted in the same spot for several decades or centuries. You have to weather out anything mother nature throws at you, no place to go, no place to hide. You are dealing with high or low temperatures, a lot of rain or a drought, maybe a caterpillar considers you as a nice dinner. No matter what the “inconvenience” may be, you have to deal with it on the spot in order to survive. More so, while you have your hands full with ‘surviving’ you have to make sure to give your offspring the best start in life. Being a tree is hard but they must do something right. Despite the seeming disadvantages or restrictions inherent to plants, trees managed to thrive and to dominate our terrestrial ecosystem.

 

Fascination with trees

Katharina Braeutigam in the research greenhouse
Experimental poplar trees in the new research greenhouse

“How do trees, standing at the same spot for maybe centuries cope with an ever-changing environment?” Prof. Braeutigam’s research is dedicated to answering this question. Although we encounter plants and trees almost every day, amazingly little is known how those immobile, long-lived organisms do it. Specifically, Prof. Braeutigam’s research is studying the underlying molecular mechanisms that enable those fascinating organisms to survive and thrive in a variable environment. Despite immobility, trees must have some ‘flexibility’ in finding answers to different situations they encounter during their lifetime.

 

The epigenome and a changing climate

In particular, the Braeutigam lab focuses on the emerging field of plant epigenetic and epigenomics. The genomic DNA in each cell’s nucleus has often been compared to the blueprint for the whole organism. If one considers the DNA as the “blueprint”, the epigenome can be viewed as instructions on how to “read” or “interpret” such a blueprint. It is important to understand that the ‘blueprint’ i.e. the DNA remains unaltered. The epigenome introduces a layer of interpretation allowing for some ‘wiggle room” how to handle certain situations.
However, for survival, past experiences are precious especially for a tree that might live for centuries. So the epigenome is not read-only, it can also be modified. As such, it can serve as a “molecular memory” that helps to “remember” the past and may prepare the tree for future challenges. This ‘flexibility’, in the age of rapid climate change, will be inevitably put to the test. Now not only a single tree has to stand its ground but whole ecosystems. For Dr. Braeutigam elucidating and understanding the mechanisms at work is the first step. She is also actively researching ways on how to modify the epigenome in order to ‘prepare’ plants to cope with future challenges e.g. drought.

 

Research Greenhouse

The UTM campus hosts a brand new Research greenhouse (RGH). Having just started at UTM, Prof. Braeutigam has been instrumental in getting the new facility up and running. New and complex research facilities often need an extensive period of setup and testing, and the RGH is no exception to this rule. She jokingly says, it was almost like getting another degree in engineering. It provided her with an opportunity to program growth chamber settings, test and re-test conditions, learn about sensors, floor draining, or the intricacies of ventilation settings. The RGH is now fully functional and plays a key role in her work.

 

Teaching and Research?

Prof. Braeutigam is delighted by the amazing students she found at UTM. Her belief is that the combination of teaching and research benefits both students and scientists alike, bringing the latest research discoveries directly to students. A lot of time goes into creating ideas, making it work, seeking funding, recruiting students, and setting up courses, but the direct communication of science is what makes it worth it.

Since her arrival in 2016 at University of Toronto Mississauga, Prof. Braeutigam worked on creating her lab team. Currently, her lab consists of graduate students, research assistants, lab manager, several passionate undergrad students and a high school student. The Braeutigam lab has openings for enthusiastic students who are interested in graduate studies at either the masters or PhD level.

 

Life outside of UTM

Last Venus transit in front of the solar disk imaged in H alpha light using a Lunt solar telescope in Toronto, Canada
Last Venus transit in front of the solar disk imaged in H alpha light (Lunt solar telescope) from Toronto. Composite image showing Venus (black circle), the solar disk and Toronto's skyline. Photo copyright: K. Braeutigam, S. Heinen.

It is often said, “science is not only a job, it’s a lifestyle”. This statement may be open for discussion, but it is a fact that a balance between work and life is essential. For Katharina that means to make the most of the time left after lab, lectures, committees, or administrative duties. Katharina balances her university life with hiking, biking, reading, sports and astronomy. Especially the latter is a passion she shares with her husband (to boldly go….).

 

The road ahead

As Arthur C. Clark once said: New ideas pass through three periods: 1) It can't be done. 2) It probably can be done, but it's not worth doing. 3) I knew it was a good idea all along!

So what does the future hold? Prof. Braeutigam is excited about working at UTM, teaching and building up a new lab, and to embark on the exciting journey of plant epigenomics. She has received funding from a variety of grant agencies i.e. NSERC, CFI, and more, and she was awarded the Connaught New Researcher Awards for “rising U of T research stars”

Her fascinating and timely field of study created a rising interest in the campus, and her lab has currently openings for interested students for the coming year to perform graduate research in her lab. Applications are very welcomed.

While her research is what’s new in plant biology, Prof. Katharina Braeutigam is part of what is next in the Department of Biology at UTM.

visit her website: https://plant-epigenetics.com/