Henrik Kaessmann is not a trained bioinformaticist. He acquired his computational skills after his PhD, on the road to uncovering the subtleties of gene origin and function, with many of his projects operating on a grand scale. Over the short evolution of his career, however, he has become one of the world's foremost bioinformatics researchers.
Kaessmann's first large-scale project was during his PhD at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, under evolutionary geneticist, Svante Paabo. "When he first applied to be a grad student I actually turned him down; there was no space," Paabo says, "but he persisted and came back after a few months. He turned out to be one of the absolutely best students I've ever had."
At the Planck Institute, Kaessmann did groundbreaking work on mitochondrial genome variation and the origin of modern humans.
"He was the first person to look at DNA variation in a long region of DNA, and it was really revolutionary at the time," says Kateryna Makova, assistant professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University, and Kaessmann's former lab mate.
After earning his PhD, Kaessmann began to expand his examination of human gene origins, moving away from sequencing work. In 2001, he took a postdoc position with Wen-Hsiung Li at the University of Chicago. "As a postdoc, I felt a bit thrown into cold water," Kaessmann says. The switch from evolutionary gene studies to comparative genomics involved computational bioinformatics techniques. He worked 12-hour days and many weekends in the lab, but "he learned very quickly," says Makova.
While at Chicago, Kaessmann prepared a large data set of retroposed gene copies in the human X chromosome. Kaessmann and a colleague used this data set to describe how repressed genes "flee" the X chromosome, also termed X-inactivation, but they maintain expression by migrating to other chromosomes.
In 2005 Kaessmann was awarded an EMBO Young Investigator Award and started a research group of eight people at the Center for Integrative Genomics in Lausanne. In May of this year he received a tenured position.
With studies on gene trafficking and genetic domain shuffling, Kaessmann now looks to describe how the complexities of the human genome came about, tackling each problem with big-picture thoughtfulness. "Some [researchers] do experiments and then think about what could be some of the problems," Paabo says. But "Henrik thinks very deeply before he does experiments."
Representative publications: 1. M. Ingman et al., "Mitochondrial genome variation and the origin of modern humans," Nature, 408:708-13, 2000. (Cited in 393 papers) 2. J. Emerson et al., "Extensive gene traffic on the mammalian X chromosome," Science, 303:537-40, 2004. (Cited in 64 papers) 3. N. Vinckenbosch et al., "Evolutionary fate of retroposed gene copies in the human genome," Proc Nat Acad Sci, 103:3220-5, 2006. (Cited in 16 papers)