Meet some of the people featured in the March 2011 issue of The Scientist.

By | March 1, 2011

Mysteries have always appealed to Manel Esteller, a self-proclaimed “aficionado” of Sherlock Holmes. “I like the possibility to deduce a whole starting from a minimal clue.” Trying to solve the mystery surrounding the molecular genetics of endometrial carcinoma during his PhD program at Universidad de Barcelona led him to devote himself to epigenetics, after he found that pure genetics was unable to explain his results. He moved to the United States for a postdoc at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, studying DNA methylation’s role in human cancer, and in 2001 founded Spain’s first epigenetics lab. He is the Director of the Cancer Epigenetics and Biology Program of the Bellvitge Institute for Biomedical Research in Barcelona, but relishes spending his free time with his family, including his six-and-a-half-year-old son. “A lot of developmental epigenetic changes are occurring in him while he is growing so fast!” Esteller describes how epigenetics has broadened our understanding of cancer and pointed to new diagnostic and therapeutic applications.

If your ancestor’s career choices can alter your epigenome, affecting your own professional leanings, it happened to molecular biologist Robert Kingston, who comes from a long line of scientists. He now runs a lab at his alma mater, Harvard University, where his group dissected the functions of Polycomb proteins in animals and now studies long-range chromatin remodeling. Although his lab Web site states that he and his group live “with chromatin always on our minds,” Kingston makes plenty of time for running, cooking Italian food paired with the perfect wine, and doing puzzles. But science is his preferred puzzle. In this month’s Thought Experiment Kingston discusses a method to test the importance of histone marks in transmitting heritable information.

Growing up in the southwest United Kingdom, Justin Goodrich (left) was interested in plant genetics from quite early on. After college, he worked breeding lentils for a year in Syria, but soon the call of academic research beckoned, and he headed back to England to get his PhD. While he was there, he had a fling with Delila—not a woman, but a gene that creates a red pigment in snapdragons and has been used to breed purple tomatoes. He joined the University of Edinburgh in 1996 as a Royal Society research fellow, and now runs a lab studying the epigenetic control of plant development. Ralf Müller, a postdoc in Goodrich’s lab, has also been a longtime fan of plant biology. After studying in Cologne, his advisor introduced him to Goodrich, whose lab he joined in 2002. Müller studies the control of flowering by epigenetic processes. “On the one hand, you have a dynamic process—this flowering, reproductive phase—and on the other hand you have the homeostasis of tissues.” In The Footprints of Winter, Goodrich and Müller describe research about how vernalization, the requirement of some cold-climate plants to undergo winter before they are able to flower, is controlled at the epigenetic level.

University of Sheffield behavioral ecologist Tim Birkhead started watching birds as a small boy. By his teenage years, he was ditching school to pursue his hobby. His latest book, The Wisdom of Birds, is in many ways the culmination of a lifetime spent studying bird behavior and biology. “I’ve been slightly overwhelmed by how successful and popular it’s been,” Birkhead says of the book, which won Best Bird Book of the Year from The British Trust for Ornithology and British Birds in 2009. “I’ve had people say, ‘I’ve never read a book before, but I read yours cover to cover.’” In an essay based one of the book’s chapters, Birkhead writes about how Charles Darwin stunted the field of ornithology for decades by failing to acknowledge the promiscuous lifestyle of many female birds. Birkhead is now working on two new books, one about the remarkable cognitive abilities of birds and another on the history of modern ornithology. He still manages to get out and do a bit of bird watching.


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