Tomoyuki (Tomo) Tanaka is Professor of Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Dundee and a Wellcome Trust Principal Research Fellow. Born and raised in Japan, he studied medicine at the University of Tokyo and obtained his PhD in medical science in 1995. In 1996, Tomo joined the IMP to work with Kim Nasmyth, first as a postdoc and later as staff scientist.
You studied at the University of Tokyo. What made you choose the IMP for your postdoc?
After obtaining a medical degree, I studied mechanisms by which leukemic cells are generated in my PhD project at the University of Tokyo in the 1990s. However, I had a growing feeling that, before addressing pathological situations, we needed to understand what’s happening in normal cells. I also realised that, when using human and mouse cells for research, the range of methods was limited – bear in mind that, at that time, RNAi, gene editing and genome/proteome analyses were either not yet available or difficult to apply. Meanwhile, I became interested in the cell cycle: this field evolved quickly after the discovery of cyclins and CDKs in the 1980s. In particular, I was fascinated by a series of papers about cyclins from Kim Nasmyth’s group, which drew on the full potential of molecular genetics in budding yeast. I therefore decided to change both research field and model organism and to join Kim’s lab as a postdoc.
You worked in the Nasmyth lab from 1996 to 2001. How did this time shape you as a researcher? Can you think of any particular formative events during this time?
For my first project, Kim suggested that I use chromatin immuno-precipitation to study the loading of replication proteins on replication origins in budding yeast. After some optimisation, it worked beautifully, and we were able to analyse this process directly in vivo and reveal how initiation of DNA replication is regulated. Subsequently, we applied this method to study the distribution of cohesins on chromosomes, which led to the discovery that cohesins accumulate at peri-centromere regions. We envisaged that peri-centromeric cohesins could be important for chromosome bi-orientation, the state that sister kinetochores attach to microtubules from the opposite spindle poles, and indeed this proved to be the case.
The five years that I worked at IMP were very productive and truly shaped my research career. Kim was an influential supervisor and a great mentor. He taught me how to choose important research questions and about how to design experiments that rigorously test hypotheses. What I learned from him laid solid foundations for my research career. His sharp intellect and great passion for science shed light on how to work as a research scientist. I also had a very good time, both at work and socially with colleagues in Kim’s lab. We often discussed science in the lab until midnight, and also enjoyed visiting Heurigen together.
Can you tell us how your career developed after you left the IMP?
In 2001, I moved to Dundee in Scotland and set up my laboratory. My group continued to study mechanisms of DNA replication and chromosome segregation in budding yeast as this is a great model organism for studying these very important research topics. Fortunately, several talented PhD students and postdocs joined my group, and together we discovered a number of important mechanisms and published several seminal papers. Recently, as well as continuing to work with yeast, we have started using human cells to study chromosome segregation and I hope we will make exciting discoveries in human cells as well.
You’re a professor at the School of Life Sciences. How important is teaching for you, and what do you get out of it?
Teaching is very important and also enjoyable. I’m currently giving lectures and tutorials to third- and fourth-year undergraduate students. In particular, I enjoy the interactive sessions such as tutorials and lecture review sessions, where we informally discuss the topics covered in my lectures. While teaching, I always try to stimulate students’ curiosity, and it’s really rewarding to see students ask questions and develop discussions as a result of their curiosity.
Interview by Heidi Hurtl, 2020
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