Department welcomes two new Group Leaders
Bungo Akiyoshi and Travis Bayer have joined the Department, bringing in exciting new research programmes with complementarity to those already present.
Dr Bungo Akiyoshi
Bungo moves from the lab of Keith Gull in the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology where he completed a 3 year postdoc. Before this, he was a graduate student in Seattle. He is supported by a Wellcome Trust/Royal Society Sir Henry Dale Fellowship for 5 years. On top of this, he was selected for a Wellcome-Beit Prize Fellowship, a prestigious award given to the top fellowship candidates.
He has a longstanding interest in understanding how cells transmit their chromosomes and the role of the kinetochore, a protein complex which links the chromosomes to the mitotic spindle ensuring that the chromosomes segregate correctly. Studying the complex from undergraduate days, he has shifted from S.pombe, to S.cerevisiae as a graduate student, and since then, to the parasite Trypanosoma brucei, the organism which causes African sleeping sickness.
‘T.brucei is an attractive organism to study the kinetochore in because no kinetochore components are known,’ Bungo says. This is because kinetochore proteins are conserved in all eukaryotes except trypanosomes. For example, the protein that binds to centromere DNA, the site of kinetochore assembly on the chromosome, is not found in trypanosomes.
Belonging to an ancient lineage of eukaryotes, trypanosomes may have evolved very different machinery for chromosome segregation. The potentially unique design principle of their kinetochores – which fulfil the same function as in other eukaryotes - raises many interesting questions about mitosis, says Bungo, and is what led him to this organism.
As a postdoc, Bungo took a brute force approach to the problem and identified a number of proteins that play critical roles in trypanosome chromosome segregation. During his fellowship, he will be characterising these proteins and exploring how they function.
Chromosome segregation is essential, so if the kinetochore composition is unique this could present a drug target. In the long term, Bungo hopes that his work may lead to the identification of drugs against trypanosome-specific targets.
He is enthusiastic about moving to the Department. His research programme has complementarity with Kim Nasmyth’s work on chromosome segregation and Francis Barr’s work on cell division and will benefit from the substantial amount of protein biochemistry and protein crystallography in the Department. Now that the Department has been furnished with a Category 2 facility for work with the parasites, he is ready to start.
Studying a fundamental cellular process in a non-conventional model organism, Bungo comments that his work stands out. ‘I go to mitosis meetings and find that people don’t know about trypanosomes but they all say that it’s a very interesting project.’
Dr Travis Bayer
Travis Bayer joins the Department as a University Lecturer and a Tutorial Fellow at Oriel College. He moves from Imperial College London where he was a Group Leader at the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation.
Originally trained as a cell biologist, Travis went on to study for a PhD at CalTech where he became interested in the emerging area of synthetic biology. During his studies there, he explored how he could use non-coding RNA to control gene expression and metabolic pathways.
Moving on to a postdoc position at UCSF, his interest in synthetic biology developed further. Recognising the environmental applications of the area, he investigated ways of engineering genetic circuits to transform non-food biomass into specific useful compounds such as biofuels.
Synthetic Biology is an area that requires a broad but targeted multi-disciplinary approach that few places in the world can pursue. Identifying the strategic importance of the area to the UK, Imperial College established the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation in 2009 with an EPSRC award. Travis was one of the group leaders recruited to the new centre.
At Imperial College, Travis pursued his interests in using synthetic biology to address issues around sustainability and health. His work encompassed many activities - developing strategies to perturb and engineer genetic networks and metabolic pathways with the overall aim of programming living systems to carry out useful functions.
With the move to Oxford, Travis will develop his work further. He is interested in exploring how to programme microbes to enhance agricultural produce - for example, boosting production in plants or making small molecules that will enhance the output of plants. Most of his work is experimental, using a range of experimentally tractable organisms, but he also uses bioinformatics expertise in the lab.
Travis says that there are clear synergies between himself and bacteriologists in the Department such as Judy Armitage, Stuart Ferguson and Ben Berks. But the breadth as well as depth of expertise in the Department and beyond is important too. ‘The best interactions are often with people doing research completely different from you,’ he comments, adding that he anticipates interacting with researchers in many other departments.
Moving away from a centre specifically focused on the area of synthetic biology presents him with an exciting challenge. Whilst the level of interest in synthetic biology in Oxford is good, Travis says, but there is not yet a critical mass. This is something that he hopes to build up.
Engaging the students in this new and exciting area is another aspect of his job that he is looking forward to. ‘It will be good to incorporate this area into my teaching,’ he says. As well as being a fun topic for students, it is one that requires a good level of understanding of existing systems and their constraints in order to design new systems.