Growing the Promise with Natasha Raikhel

An expanded interview with the Ernst and Helen Leibacher Endowed Chair in Plant Molecular, Cell Biology & Genetics

Natasha Raikhel

Natasha V. Raikhel is one of the most highly cited researchers in plant science. The distinguished professor, who was recently elected to the National Academy of Sciences for her excellence in original scientific research, wears many hats at UCR. She’s the Ernst and Helen Leibacher Endowed Chair in Plant Molecular, Cell Biology & Genetics and the director of UCR’s Center for Plant Cell Biology and the Institute for Integrative Genome Biology.

In UCR Magazine’s Winter 2013 edition, Raikhel talked about falling in love with science after being trained in her youth as a classical pianist. In this online-only feature, Raikhel also discusses the future of genomics at UCR, how plant cell biology impacts our lives, how being elected into the National Academy of Sciences has impacted her life and more.

What are your thoughts on the future of genomics at UCR?

The field of genomics is here to stay and will flourish for years to come. The field is evolving very rapidly and is driving all fields of biology and medicine in transformative ways. With the accreditation of UCR’s medical school, we have to make sure that our scientists have access to the very latest and useful high-throughput sequencing and other technologies that are revolutionizing science. These technologies are generating overwhelming amounts of data as part of our new era of big data.” Our scientists must be able efficiently perform sophisticated analyses of these massive datasets which brings us to our key to capitalizing on the genomics revolution: bioinformatics. Big data is useless without the ability to analyze and draw meaningful conclusions. Thus, as a critical part of keeping pace with advancing genomics technologies, we must invest more in our bioinformatics capabilities at UCR. This is a critical route to future competitiveness and novel discoveries.

You’ve been known to tell your students “Plants can live without us, but we cannot live without plants.”  Why not?

People love and enjoy plants but do not often remember how essential plants are for the well-being and health of humans and for a sustainable global environment on our planet. All animals including humans use plants in their diets. Most of the world farmland is already in use and currently feeding seven billion people. However, by the year 2050 our planet will be populated by approximately nine billion people and it will be necessary to use all available technologies and knowledge about plant growth and development in order to feed such a huge population. Animals, including humans, breathe because marine plants produce around 70 to 80 percent of the oxygen on our planet, allowing us to be here! We are clothed and make furniture largely from plants.  Plants do not need us for all the above but we definitely need plants!

How does plant cell biology impact our everyday life?

We know a lot about the way plants develop (seeds germinate, seedlings grow and develop, plants flower) and respond and adapt to environmental conditions on a genetic level. We know very little, however, about what is happening on a cellular level to proteins in live cells during development or in response to different environmental conditions. If we know how a live cell works, we can think of clever ways to strengthen its “durability” and usefulness. This information is critical to addressing the challenges we face with the increasing worldwide demand for food, global warming, and biofuel production.

You are a world expert in the area of protein trafficking. What is it? And what makes it important?

I can give a simple analogy to explain protein trafficking.  If we think about airspace and flight plans, we know that there are specific routes/pathways for flights and specific rules regarding air traffic. There are hubs where planes could be changed if malfunctions develop or detained if serious natural or man-made events occur. Protein trafficking in the cells is similar.  After protein is synthesized, it has to be delivered to the proper part of the cell to perform its function. Sometimes protein arrives at the wrong place and the cell compensates for this mistake with built-in system redundancies. However, if the hub is extremely important, the mistake cannot be corrected and the cell dies. This analogy, while simplistic, explains why we study the “rules and regulations” of protein trafficking in the cell. Many basic “rules” in eukaryotic cells are similar but as multicellular organisms, plants possess many specialized cell types, each surrounded by a cell wall and organized into tissues and organs. In addition, many proteins in plants are encoded by many similar genes (we call them multigene families). There are more multigene families in plants than in other organisms, probably because plants are sessile organisms and need more different ways/opportunities to deal with stress and environmental changes. Also proteins function in various complexes with other proteins and this complexity brings specificity for a particular function.  Therefore, we study the intricate network of “rules and regulations” for protein trafficking because it is key to the proper functioning of organelles in the live cell.

You serve on numerous government and industry advisory and editorial boards.  What are some of the ways you are contributing?

I guess over the years I have accumulated some experience and knowledge in addressing and answering questions — seeing the forest through the trees, as they say, and being able to streamline goals to get work done. However, I believe this is a two-way street. During these visits, I always learn as much as I contribute. I learn about useful practices and sometimes what not to do! So, it is interesting because I feel like I am always learning something new.

How has receiving membership in the National Academy of Science (NAS) impacted you?  What has changed because of it?

The election to the NAS was a great honor for me, of course. This honor goes not only to me but also to all my former and current students, postdocs, and colleagues with whom I have collaborated. I also think it is a great reflection on the Center for Plant Cell Biology (CEPCEB), the Institute for Integrative Genome Biology (IIGB) and UCR at large. Three out of five current NAS members at UCR are IIGB members. This makes me very happy!

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