Kirsten Bomblies receives the "Genius Award"

34-year-old junior Tübingen-based scientist awarded 500,000-dollar MacArthur Foundation Prize

September 23, 2008

Kirsten Bomblies from the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen was appointed a MacArthur Fellow today. The 34-year-old evolutionary biologist will receive a total of 500,000 dollars (ca. 350,000 euros) over the next five years from the American MacArthur Foundation. The fact that the money is not tied to any particular use makes it a special prize that will enable the fellowship holder to develop her creativity and advance her career.

Kirsten Bomblies, who earned her doctorate just four years ago, was completely unprepared for the news that she was set to receive 500,000 dollars from the MacArthur Foundation. "The call from America was the biggest surprise of my life. I still can't believe it," said Kirsten Bomblies. The Foundation annually grants some 20 to 25 fellowships to particularly talented individuals of all ages; not only scientists, but artists and entrepreneurs as well. The decisive factor is the creativity that shapes their work. The financial support is intended to give fellowship holders the opportunity to expand their knowledge, to initiate bold projects or to take their career in a new direction.

Research at the Max Planck Institute in Tübingen
Kirsten Bomblies has spent the past four years conducting research in one of Detlef Weigel's working groups at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology. She has been looking into how genetic incompatibilities lead to the emergence of new species in the course of evolution. The Tübingen-based scientist's study object is thale cress, a small, somewhat nondescript flowering plant prevalent in all of the Earth's temperate zones.

Kirsten Bomblies and her colleagues have determined that crossing different strains of thale cress very often results in stunted offspring. Their growth is underdeveloped, their leaves turn yellow and they frequently do not flower at all. Closer investigation revealed that the immune defenses were activated in these plants, even though they had not come under attack from fungus or bacteria. Normally, a plant's immune system attacks only infected cells and destroys them.

In the stunted hybrids, however, it apparently attacks even healthy tissue, as the hybrid plants mistake their own bodies for dangerous germs. The genes responsible, which make the hybrids but not their parents ill, are often pathogen detectors. Kirsten Bomblies emphasizes however, that the hybrids are not the victims of faulty genes: contrary to many hereditary diseases, it is not two defective variants of the same gene that clash. Here, harmful interaction between genes that have developed differently in the two parent strains takes place. Each gene is in itself non disruptive and probably holds some advantage for the healthy parents. The scientist suspects that the incompatibilities are "only" a byproduct of the race between the plant and its parasites, but are still very important for the emergence of new species.

Career path thus far
Kirsten Bomblies's life has taken her on a varied journey. Originally from the town of Uelzen in Germany's Lower Saxony, she grew up in Colorado in the western United States and has held an American passport for the past eleven years - American citizenship is one of the basic prerequisites for a MacArthur fellowship. She studied biochemistry and biology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia (USA) and subsequently gathered her first experience with thale cress in California - in the lab of Detlef Weigel, who was still at the Salk Institute in La Jolla at the time. In 2004, she earned her doctorate from the University of Wisconsin for her study of how the cultured corn we know today developed over the past 10,000 years. She returned to thale cress shortly afterwards, as a postdoc in the Molecular Biology Department at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology. However, her time in Tübingen is drawing to a close. Starting July 2009, she will head a working group as a professor at Harvard University in Boston. "I intend to continue studying the emergence and adaptation of species, but I'd like to broaden my research to embrace other plants as well," explains Bomblies.

The fellowship
Kirsten Bomblies is confident that her findings with thale cress can be transferred to other plant species. There is much to indicate that cases of hybrid necrosis in crop plants like wheat can be traced back to the same mechanism that occurs in thale cress, which can serve as a model for the further study of this phenomenon. "This type of model would be extremely valuable for crop cultivation. Here, genetic incompatibility stands in the way of many new hybrids," says the plant researcher. The observation that only a few genes are involved in the development of hybrid necrosis provides her with additional encouragement. Apparently, minor genetic changes are all it takes to get around hybridization barriers and to achieve the desired recombination of attributes.

The biologist, who is also an artist in her spare time, plans to use the fellowship to push ahead with innovative projects for which it might be difficult to obtain research funding. She also wants to write a book about the origin of plant species.

"Kirsten Bomblies may be only 34 years old, but she is already a highly-regarded scientist who is invited to many international congresses. Her studies of hybrid necrosis have opened a new gateway in evolutionary biology. I don't know many other scientists with as many wonderful and original ideas as Kirsten," said Detlef Weigel, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology. "The MacArthur fellowship, known by many as the "Genius Award", will put her in a position to bring her ideas to fruition irrespective of the opinions of the scientific establishment. We are all really thrilled; it's a fabulous accolade for Kirsten, but it's also a great acknowledgement of the field of evolutionary biology and the academic freedom enjoyed at the Max Planck Society."

The MacArthur Foundation
With capital of seven billion dollars (ca. five billion euros) and annual payouts of around 300 million dollars in funding, the MacArthur Foundation is one of the USA's largest foundations. The MacArthur Fellows Program provides support for talented individuals with a total of approximately 500,000 dollars (ca. 350,000 euros) over a five-year period. The criteria are: exceptional creativity, the prospect of outstanding future discoveries and considerable potential to promote creative work in the future. The program's objective is to support strongly talented individuals so that they can pursue their creative, intellectual and professional aptitudes. These can include writers, scientists, artists, scholars in the human sciences, teachers or entrepreneurs, provided they are American citizens or reside in the United States.


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