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Jörg Betschinger

Jörg Betschinger was a PhD student with Jürgen Knoblich between 2002 and 2004. He is now a group leader at the Friedrich Miescher Institute in Basel - and keeps his close ties with the IMP.

Although Kim Nasmyth’s ground-breaking achievements had made their way even onto my parochial undergraduate horizon, it was really the rise of Jürgen that put the IMP on my radar. While I was finishing my diploma thesis with Janni Nüsslein-Volhard and chewing over what to do next, the Knoblich lab published a physical link between epithelial cell polarity and asymmetric cell division.

Being a biochemist strayed in Drosophila development, I was intrigued by Jürgen’s unique combination of biochemistry and genetics, as well as the cell biological beauty of the neuroblast system. Fortunately, Jürgen had an opening in the forthcoming selection, and I was lucky enough to get the chance and join his team.

In the lab I treaded paths casted by Jürgen’s second PhD student, Matthias Schäfer, and managed to biochemically identify novel components of the asymmetric cell division machinery. Coincidentally, those encoded for known tumour suppressors, which led us to investigate the role of cell fate determinant segregation in lineage progression of neural progenitor cells.

Although Cambridge stamped my actual research interests, it’s fair to say that my personal scientific expectations were specified at the IMP and IMBA.

Jörg Betschinger

Removal of our genes (and, in fact, several more lingering in the Knoblich lab stock collection) in Drosophila larval brains was sufficient to impair neuroblast differentiation and induce ectopic progenitor cell identity. This striking observation encouraged me to adopt similar concepts to mammalian stem cells. I therefore moved to the newly founded Centre for Stem Cell Research at the University of Cambridge, UK into the lab of Austin Smith.

Austin is well known for his work on embryonic stem cells, but his lab had just published the derivation of homogeneous neural stem cell cultures. I reasoned that these would be an ideal system to apply the Drosophila toolbox, and identify genes required for exit from the neural stem cell state during differentiation. Far wrong – over the next nearly two years we learned a lot about this cell type, in particular that it does not feature the properties my original hypothesis was built upon.

Fortunately, and rather than quitting science for good, Austin convinced me at this stage to start from scratch and adopt embryonic stem cells. This turn was thankfully successful, and led to the identification of novel stem cell fate transition regulators, with several of them encoding for tumour suppressors, again. These findings now afford us an opportunity to start asking how stem cell differentiation, and by extension stem cell plasticity, is encoded in the respective cell identity networks.

Although Cambridge stamped my actual research interests, it’s fair to say that my personal scientific expectations were specified at the IMP and IMBA - institutes without limitations, with a thrilling breadth of topics under their roofs, and host to so many outstanding scientists and support staff. I’m therefore more than happy to now be at the Friedrich Miescher Institute in Basel that is taking the very same holistic approach, and to work together with so many former Viennese.

By Jörg Betschinger, first published in 2014