Zdeněk Lánský received his PhD in physics from the Charles University in Prague in 2006. He then moved to The Netherlands for his postdoc, where he studied the biophysics of molecular motors – first at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam with Erwin Peterman, and then at Wageningen University with Marcel Janson. In 2011 he joined the lab of Stefan Diez at the B CUBE Center for Molecular Bioengineering in Dresden, where his research focused on crosslinker-mediated force generation in the cytoskeleton. Zdeněk set up his lab at the Institute of Biotechnology, Czech Academy of Sciences, BIOCEV in 2015, which he has run together with Marcus Braun since 2017. Marcus Braun received his PhD in biochemistry from King's College London in 2009 for his work on microtubule-based molecular motors in the labs of Andrew McAinsh and Rob Cross. He then moved to Dresden for his postdoc to study cytoskeletal transport, with a particular focus on microtubule crosslinkers, in Stefan Diez's lab – first at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, then later at B CUBE. In 2017, he joined Zdeněk Lánský at the Institute of Biotechnology, Czech Academy of Sciences, BIOCEV, as a principal investigator. The Lánský and Braun lab investigates ensemble dynamics of cytoskeletal proteins.
Zdeněk Lánský and Marcus Braun
How did you get into research?
Z.L.: I first wanted to be a medical doctor, but later realised that I can't memorise so many things. So, I went on to study physics, which was fun, but only during my PhD did I gradually decide to become a researcher. Also, my parents are scientists, so science was always around at home.
M.B.: I was always interested in finding out how things work. So, I started out at the basis, with linguistics and philosophy, but after a year I realised this was not for me. Among the freshman students there was way too much idle talk and very little substance, and to my surprise, during class the teachers let them go on and on – and I couldn't take that. So, when I got into biology it was really nice to not just talk, but rather to test the hypotheses experimentally, to see whether they hold true or not when tried against ‘reality’. For my diploma thesis I chose to study molecular motors. I thought that this was a topic I could stay with for a bit longer – and I haven't left the field since!
Who has inspired you and what has been the most influential work in your field?
Z.L.: I guess the people who inspired me most were those nearest around me, my mentors and collaborators. Then, from the ‘outside’, I would mention Thomas Surrey. I've always liked his work very much; whenever we want to look at something and check the literature, we find that Thomas has done it ten years ago. I also really appreciate the work of Zvonimir Dogic – I can watch the movies from his papers literally for hours. Regarding influential papers, what immediately comes to my mind is the Furuta PNAS paper published in 2013 (Furuta et al., 2013; doi:10.1073/pnas.1201390110), where they investigate the collective action of kinesin-1 and kinesin-14 motors. We cite it all the time, and it seems that everything you ever wanted to know about these motors is in this study. Another one I'd mention is Jelmer Lindeboom's Science paper about the reorientation mechanism of cortical microtubules in plants (Lindeboom et al., 2013; doi:10.1126/science.1245533). I still can't believe how beautiful this mechanism is!
M.B.: As an undergraduate, I left the university and actually joined Thomas Surrey's lab at EMBL Heidelberg. I was inspired by his approach of reconstituting dynamic processes in vitro to explain the biophysical underpinnings of cytoskeletal systems. It was Thomas who introduced me to Rob Cross, who, at the time, by pulling gently at kinesin-1 with an optical trap made kinesin-1 step backwards – I thought that was really neat! Ever since then, my approach of choice is in vitro reconstitution.
What questions are the Lánský and Braun lab working on now?
M.B.: In one of the projects we are looking at the roles of the microtubule envelope. So, there are these microtubule-associated proteins that form an envelope around microtubules and regulate which other proteins can access the microtubule surface. Posttranslational modifications also influence the binding of envelope proteins or other proteins to microtubules, so we are trying to understand this multi-layered regulation. The other topic we are interested in is how actin filaments and microtubules influence each other.
Z.L.: This is actually very new for us – and we've had a lot of fun playing with actin! Sometimes we look at things that people have known for a long time and just think ‘wow, this is so cool’. We want to later focus on microtubule–actin crosstalk, but at the moment what we are seeing in the experiments with actin alone is so rich already that we have been postponing adding the microtubules into the picture. Another topic that I'm really excited to be working on involves proteins that can generate forces but are not molecular motors. We have been working on this for a while now but are still finding more and more proteins that can do this trick. These are typically filament-crosslinking proteins, and the force that they generate then slides the filaments relative to each other. Interestingly, this sliding always decreases the overlap between the filaments, so in effect there is contraction generated without the need for molecular motors.
How did the idea come to start the lab together?
Z.L.: We already worked a lot together during our postdocs. I was first in Wageningen in The Netherlands when Marcus was in Stefan Diez's lab in Dresden, and we had a joint paper together. I already wanted to go back to Prague, but thought I'd stop by for a little while in Dresden to finish another paper with Marcus, but I ended up staying a lot longer. Then, a year or two after I got my position in Prague, Marcus was looking around for jobs, and I just asked him if he would like to join me so we could work together the same way as before.
M.B.: And I think that kind of worked out nicely, right? We are bouncing ideas off each other all the time, and most of the projects are just shaped during our conversations.
Z.L.: Yes, so we actually come to work to chat! [laughs]
Could you tell us a bit more about how you jointly run the lab?
M.B.: We kind of mentor everyone together, and there aren't really strictly separated projects.
Z.L.: Indeed, and things sort of happen organically. We both write proposals and apply for grants, so initially the projects are somewhat separated. But as we work on the projects, we discuss most of the things every now and then, and we very often end up being involved in each other's projects. Along the same lines, we also end up talking to students that work on different projects – they just usually come and see whichever one of us is around. Very often we have discussions in a bigger group, and I think this is when most of the ideas come about. The lab is very interconnected – we share resources, and the students interact with each other all the time.
What challenges did you face when setting up the lab that you didn't expect?
Z.L.: It surprised me how hard it was to find students and how tricky it was to get them enrolled in the local grad school system. At the time, it was only possible to enrol a student once a year, meaning that if your prospective student cancelled on you a week before the deadline, you had no choice but to wait another year. This was a bit frustrating. In the beginning I only had one student, who actually came from Dresden, and we knew each other from Stefan's lab. I was very grateful she joined because otherwise I would have been sitting there alone for quite a long time. Also, when I started the lab my first kid was just born, and then the second one shortly after, so it was a bit crazy both at home and in the institute. Since Marcus joined the lab it has been a lot easier. I think we both take advantage of running the lab together; we can spend more time with our families and know that there's still someone around in the lab who the students can talk to.
Are there any things you experienced in Dresden that you have implemented at your current institute?
Z.L.: Dresden is definitely a very nice place for doing science and it's very close to Prague geographically, so it would be great if we could get some of the special Dresden scientific culture here. We're trying to bring together a local cytoskeleton community in Prague, which is working out pretty well, I would say. We have brought together labs with very different backgrounds and goals, ranging from the development of new microscopy techniques to single-molecule biophysics, cell biology and developmental biology. Within this community we are organising a monthly seminar series called ‘The Cytoskeletal Brew’, where our students can present their results and the discussion after the seminar is held in a local pub. We are also inviting external speakers for our series of seminars titled ‘Cytoskeleton Seminars Prague’. We've been really lucky so far and had some amazing scientists come to Prague, and we're looking forward to starting these seminars again soon. At the moment, we're actually trying to make all this a little bit more visible to the outside world by establishing something we call a topical cluster – ‘Cytoskeletal Dynamics Across Scales: From Molecular Biophysics to Organismal Development’. We'll have a website with all the relevant information, and most importantly, we are now trying to connect our PhD students with the PhD students in Dresden by establishing a partnership between this topical cluster and the TU Dresden graduate school. If this works out, it would be an amazing opportunity for the students and the involved groups.
M.B.: It's always nice to talk with people who are interested in similar topics, and it's inevitably fruitful if these people are using different techniques – that's what we're trying to do within Prague by bringing together physicists interested in developing optical techniques, cell biologists and biologists working with mouse models. It's also very helpful to regularly interact with people from outside our local bubble, so that fresh ideas and approaches can take shape.
How has the work in your lab been affected by the pandemic?
Z.L.: It hasn't been too bad, actually. The lab was able to run the whole time with some restrictions, such as people who aren't doing experiments working from home, but we didn't have to do shifts or anything like that. Of course, everything goes a bit slower, but this is the same in other places. Lately, our PCR facility in the institute is doing COVID tests for everyone twice a week, which really helps. What I do miss a lot, though, are real seminars and conferences, where you can talk to people over a beer. These online meetings don't seem to work very well for me.
Finally, could you tell us an interesting fact about yourself that people wouldn't know by looking at your CV?
Z.L.: I was thinking of becoming a professional saxophone player at some point. This didn't work out, which I guess is lucky for me, but I still play the saxophone sometimes. And Marcus and I are both interested in philosophy; I think this is also what brought us together in the beginning. We have been discussing things like the phenomenology of embodiment, and we are actually trying to start a project at the moment that goes in this direction. We got together with developmental psychologists at the Faculty of Education here in Prague and we just submitted a joint proposal where we aim to investigate the role of objectual context, the objects around us, in skilful actions like tying a knot or playing the piano. We aim to combine a theoretical and experimental approach to look into this. It's something completely new for me, so I'm quite excited about this project.
That sounds really interesting; Marcus, could you tell us a bit more about these approaches?
M.B.: We're interested in the contextual integration of objects into learning processes, aiming to demonstrate that during skilled performance, such as playing a piano, cognition is not detachedly happening in the brain of a performer, but instead is a delocalised process, inseparable from the physical keys of the piano being touched. We propose to support this claim with data derived from motion tracking of finger movements of piano students at various stages of competence, which will provide extensive quantitative data for mathematical analysis and allow us to examine the role of the physical presence of the keys and their significance for skill acquisition. We're aiming at the coming together, the merging, of the instrument and the performer – phenomenologically well-described by anecdotal evidence – the object withdrawing and being integrated with the performer to enable the activity. Let's see how that goes!
Zdeněk Lánský and Marcus Braun were interviewed by Máté Pálfy, Features & Reviews Editor at Journal of Cell Science. This piece has been edited and condensed with approval from the interviewees.