We will soon be publishing our themed issue on Metal Toxicity, Guest Edited by Gregor Grass and Chris Rensing. Chris is an Associate Professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the University of Arizona, and he took the time to tell us about himself. Read on to find out why he became a scientist, what he’s most proud of in his career and why he feels metal toxicity deserved a Metallomics issue of its own…
You’re a Guest Editor for the Metallomics themed issue on Metal Toxicity. Why is this area important and interesting?
Almost half of known enzymes contain a metal co-factor, so metals are a requisite for life but can be toxic if in excess. This was known for a long time but not what the actual targets of individual metals inside the cell were. Instead you are confronted with a plethora of false claims and half truths when searching the literature for mechanisms of metal toxicity. So we thought it would be of great help to scientists working in this area to have a special issue dealing with precisely this topic. It’s important because it influences everything from neuroscience (see the recent themed issue on Metals in Neurodegenerative Diseases) to climate change.
What’s hot at the moment in this field?
The tug of war over metals in pathogenesis. Macrophages will attempt to withhold manganese and iron from the invading pathogens while, at the same time, using copper to kill them. Bacteria will do the opposite to survive: take up manganese and iron while keeping out excess copper. A better understanding of these processes might lead to more effective antimicrobial drugs.
You’ve contributed a review on copper toxicity; how did you become interested in this area? What projects are you working on at the moment?
When I was working in the lab of Barry Rosen as a post-doc, I started out working on ZntA, the Zn(II),Cd(II),Pb(II)-translocating P-type ATPase when the E. coli genome sequence came out and showed there is only one other putative metal-transporting P-type ATPase present. We decided to find out what substrate it transported and that turned out to be copper and silver, and was thus named CopA. A deletion of copA, however, was still pretty resistant to copper so when my first post-doc, Gregor Grass, arrived we decided to find out what other genes contributed to copper resistance. That is how our studies on the multicopper oxidase CueO and the RND transport system CusCFBA got started.
Which of your previous research are you most proud of?
Transport measurement with radioactive isotopes can be quite exhilarating, if successful, so the two moments when I finally got ZntA and CopA to transport zinc and copper respectively was a special occasion. More recently, characterizing bacterial arsenic methylation and figuring out how the periplasmic copper effluc pump CusCFBA works.
You started your career in Germany and have been in the USA for many years now. What are the similarities and differences between the scientific communities of both places?
In the United States, there are many more faculty positions because you have to basically raise your own money for research. In Germany a typical faculty position will automatically support a few positions even without obtaining a grant. The good thing in the US, therefore, is that they at least give you a fighting chance; the down side is that you might quickly not have a research program anymore. Of course, the Germans will typically not see it that way because they enjoy complaining! (We’ll let Chris get away with that because he’s German himself)
In my own judgement (and I can only talk about what I have observed), scientific debate in the US is often very tame and polite, which can prevent open and honest discussion because you worry about being misunderstood. Honest scientific debate at your own institution can also be quite tricky as nobody wants to rock the (financial) boat.
What inspires you, both professionally and personally?
The unknown. I like figuring out how things work, get to know new people or accept a new challenge.
Collaborations form a large part of modern scientific research. Which scientist, past or present, would you really like to work with?
There are quite a number I admire. I would say Francis Crick in the past and today Ham Smith and Craig Venter. I used to box and I like to listen to the Ali swagger in science too.
At what stage did you decide to become a scientist? Did you consider any other careers?
I was pretty bad at the other avenues I tried! My bands went nowhere, my reflexes were too slow for professional boxing and as a DJ, well… I sometimes jokingly used to say “Last Resort scientist”. (That’s a play on words since the Last Resort is a skinhead shop in London and yes, I used to wear my Ben Sherman shirts and Doc Martens.)
Seriously, I was always interested in science and have many pleasant memories visiting my dad at the II. Zoologische Institut in Göttingen (Chris’ dad, Ludger, is a biologist who has contributed to the Editorial for the themed issue). So after doing my 18 month civil service I knew that science was where my passion was and what I wanted to do in the future.
Can you tell us a little known fact about yourself?
I used to have a crush on Rhoda Dakar of the Bodysnatchers, a Ska band from the early eighties. She still looks sharp in her fifties. More embarrassing than that, I still don’t use Endnote.
Finally, what advice would you give to young scientists today?
It is a great time to get into science. Getting your own genome sequenced will cost about $1000 very soon and will revolutionize the medical field among many other things. Work on the human microbiome has really only started, again with tremendous future opportunities. Get a good foundation in a well-funded lab to learn the tools of the trade but also get training in an area that most find too difficult. Then, go for an area that is just opening up due to new technological advances.
We’d like to thank Chris for taking the time to do this interview, and of course for all his work on the themed issue. You can get a look of the review that he and Gregor have written here, and look out for the full themed issue coming very soon.