“The concentration of so much academic potential in one place is noteworthy” – Interview with Prof. Claudia Köhler

The Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology (MPI-MP), located in Potsdam Science Park, is regarded as one of the world’s most prestigious research institutions. In February 2021 Prof. Dr. Claudia Köhler joined its senior management. As director of the department of reproductive biology and epigenetics, she has established an entirely new field of research in molecular plant physiology at the MPI-MP. In the interview, she explains how changes in the genetic activity of plants can occur without modifying the DNA itself, why she considers current legislation to worthy of improvement, and what potential she sees in Potsdam Science Park.

Professor Köhler, since February 2021, you have been the Director of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology. Can you recall your first impression of the institute and its location?

In 2019, I visited Potsdam Science Park for the first time. Back then, preliminary talks were being held regarding my position as director. At the time, what struck me about the location was its concentration of academic potential. With three Max-Planck institutes, two Fraunhofer-Institutes and the University of Potsdam right next door to each other, the location is a very attractive one. I also really liked the building of the Max Planck Institute – it’s modern, beautifully located, and it’s equipped with a wonderful infrastructure. My first impression was therefore very positive.

You are engaged with the task of organising the institute’s new Department of Reproductive Biology and Epigenetics. What, precisely, is the focus of this field of research?

Epigenetics involves the study of hereditary changes in traits and characteristics that come about without changes in the DNA sequence. This occurs by way of chemical changes, either directly to the DNA or to the proteins that connect the DNA. This is different in the case of spontaneous genetic mutations, which we learn about in school: When such mutations occur, the DNA sequence is modified, which likewise leads to a change in characteristics. What we do is take a look: Which characteristics are passed down so that they can take shape during the next generation by means of epigenetic processes, and which not? This can be determined on the basis of certain molecular techniques that render chemical changes in the DNA or the protein visible. This way, we can find out where the modifications have taken place, which makes it possible to match particular modifications to particular changes in a plant’s structure.

Where genetic modification in agriculture is concerned, the EU regulations are very strict. In addition, consumers here in Germany are very sceptical about these kinds of possibilities. How do they assess these basic conditions for research?

My research is not directly affected by this critical view. I engage in fundamental research, and, initially, I only observe how plants reproduce, and what molecular processes govern their reproductive process. However, we occasionally encounter things that would be very helpful for the genetic modification of food. The existing laws currently prevents us from converting these findings into practice. Personally, I hope that this situation will change in the near future. At the moment, when we modify a plant epigenetically without a modification appearing in the DNA sequence, this is nevertheless considered a genetically modified organism. For this reason, they cannot be used. But this exclusion makes no sense: If we take a look at the problems we’re experiencing at the current time, we see that there is an urgent need for change. Due to climate change, many of our cultivated plants are no longer able to adjust to extreme weather, such as floods or periods of drought.

What advantages do you see in permitting increased leeway in epigenetics and genetic modification?

Thanks to new scientific methods, we could cultivate plants that are better able to adjust. This could be accomplished faster and more cost-effectively than using conventional methods. In fact, we have the technology to accomplish this, but we don’t use it. This makes little sense, from both the economic and ecological points of view, because new methods would permit the cultivation of agricultural crops that are better able to adjust within a shorter period of time. This would reduce the need to deploy artificial irrigation techniques or pesticides. Practically all of the crops we use are based on selective cultivation techniques, and these cultivation techniques, seen from a scientific point of view, are nothing more than the result of human selection of particular characteristics that have come into being by way of spontaneous mutation. Here, more educational work is required, since a mutation in nature that has occurred in spontaneous fashion is not better than one that has been created in purposeful fashion. My hope is that people will eventually stop looking at the technology, and instead look at the end result. Of course, I take people’s reservations about new technologies seriously, but my hope is that these reservations can be dismantled by providing better clarification of the issues involved.

What objective do you have for the department in the next few years? What expectations do you have for yourself and for the department?

As far as science is concerned, I am especially interested in the question as to how the development of nutritive tissue in seeds – the endosperm – is managed. A large portion of our daily calorie intake consists of endosperms, since this is the primary component in foods such as bread, rice or Corn Flakes. For this reason, developing an understanding as to how this tissue is formed is of great importance, from both a scientific and a practical point of view. In addition to this important question, I am also interested in the role endosperms play in the crossbreeding of related plant types since, interestingly enough, a hybridisation barrier is forming. Our goal is thus to find out how these barriers in endosperms are created and how we might be able to remove them in a targeted fashion. Hybridisation barriers differentiate various types from one another and prevent hybrid forms from being created. Nevertheless, the development of hybrids is a very important and desired goal of cultivation. Our research has been able to show that these hybridisation barriers have an epigenetic basis, and we are trying to find out how we can remove these barriers using targeted epigenetic modifications. This is also of great interest to plant breeding companies and, ultimately, for the consumer, since this way, foodstuffs can be produced better and more affordably.

The Max Planck Institute is considered a very open facility, which offers its researchers a lot of creative freedom. How do evaluate the work being done there?

I appreciate the high level of trust one receives by the Max Planck Society. You are provided with significant resources, and you can therefore engage in research in quite unrestricted fashion. This is unparalleled. In many other institutions, this is different. Before research projects can be commenced, very costly project proposals must be written, and oftentimes these are not accepted due to financial restrictions, though the underlying intentions may be very good. Here at the institute, I am provided with generous financial resources to carry out new projects without previous evaluation. That is wonderful! It is, I believe, one of the most important sources of the Max-Planck Institute’s innovative strength. There is a confidence in the scientists and their ability to ask the right questions, use their resources purposefully and achieve valuable results.

What motivates you?

Curiosity and the joy I experience when I can achieve an answer to an unanswered question. It’s a little like reading a good thriller novel: You engage in a certain amount of speculation and are satisfied when you find out you were right. Of course, you must keep in mind at the same time that your expectations might be incorrect. You cannot allow this to discourage you. I consider it to be a great privilege to be able to seek out fascinating scientific hypotheses, and that I have the opportunity to provide answers to them. And I would like to see the results of my research being applied and thereby providing a positive contribution to the development of society. Science is judged on the basis of published findings, not so much on its application. Nevertheless, I would like for my work to contribute to this.

You started your academic career in Halle, completed your doctorate in Freiburg and then worked in Zurich for several years before becoming a professor in Uppsala, Sweden, in 2010. Now, you are member of the scientific community in the Potsdam Science Park. What makes this location special, in your opinion?

As I mentioned, it’s the concentration of so much academic potential in one location. However, actually making use of this potential is also a challenge. Corona and certain time restrictions have prevented me from exhausting these possibilities. But I hope to expand my network here in the future, and to get the opportunity to plan additional collaborative projects – hopefully not on the basis of zoom meetings, but rather in person.

What do you desire for your future and for the future of the location?

The work we do depends on having good and motivated colleagues, and I have the privilege of working with a very motivated team. I hope that we will continue to enjoy our research as a team, that we will produce fascinating results and receive the appropriate international recognition for our efforts. As far as the location is concerned, I hope that the institute will be regarded internationally as a first-rate address. Excellent research is being performed here, and there are excellent opportunities to engage in research here. Science is ultimately a tough business, and you’re competing with institutions all over the world, with the cleverest people. We want to stay on the front lines with our location – and attract the best people. The prerequisites are all there, and we’ve got to take advantage of them.