Marie Barberon studied plant biology at the University of Montpellier II, France. She then stayed in Montpellier for her PhD with Grégory Vert to work on iron transport and signalling, focussing on the trafficking and functions of a metal transporter. Marie then moved to Lausanne, Switzerland, and received an EMBO long-term fellowship to carry out her postdoctoral work with Niko Geldner. There, she investigated the function of the endodermis as a barrier for nutrient acquisition. Marie joined the University of Geneva in February 2018 as Assistant Professor, where she is combining her expertise in nutrient physiology, cell biology and development to uncover the mechanisms controlling radial transport of nutrients in roots.
What inspired you to become a scientist? And how did you end up working on plants?
I was a really curious kid, and loved solving maths equations. But because for biology classes, we mainly had to learn a lot of facts in school, it was only at university where I realised how cool it can be to test hypotheses and solve biological problems with experiments. I had probably already developed some empathy for plants early on, as I spent quite some time in my childhood on the farm of my uncle. But the main reason I got into plant biology was that I did my university studies in Montpellier in France, where plant research is really strong; we had a great team of teachers, professors and research assistants who taught plant biology in a very exciting way and included the latest research in their lectures. This was at the time when the first genomes of plants, including Arabidopsis, were sequenced and the first knockout mutants and transgenic plants became available, so plant biology was really thriving. I ended up doing a short summer internship during the third year of my Bachelor's working on sulphur transport and assimilation, and I really loved it – that's when I decided that, no matter how tough it would be, I want to become a researcher!
What questions are your lab trying to answer just now?
We're studying how the development of the root and its cellular features impact plant nutrition. We're particularly interested in a barrier called suberin, a secondary cell wall deposition formed in the endodermis, which creates a hydrophobic layer around the cells. This diffusion barrier has been known about for a very long time, and we're looking at how it is made, how its formation is regulated by the environment, and what its functions are. We also have a second important project where we're trying to understand whether and how cytoplasmic connections between cells, called plasmodesmata, are involved in plant nutrition.
Your research integrates development, cell biology, signalling and nutrient physiology, so you seem to like holistic approaches?
A beauty of working with plants is that you can really take an integrative approach and study a phenomenon at the cellular or subcellular level, and then look at how it is integrated at the organism level. Personally, for any molecular process, I'm not satisfied until I get to see what cell types are involved, or in which plant tissues a pathway is active – so any project we do, even if it's on a transcription factor or a signalling cascade, will involve going to the microscope at some point.
“A beauty of working with plants is that you can really take an integrative approach and study a phenomenon at the cellular or subcellular level, and then look at how it is integrated at the organism level.”
On your research website, you mention how the plant root can functionally be seen as an ‘inverted gut’. Do you find that it's important to make such comparisons to get the attention of scientists working on animal systems?
Yes, ‘plant blindness’, which is a phenomenon where humans don't notice plants in their environment, or forget how essential they are as a food source or in producing oxygen, is very real and life scientists can also be affected. So, I still often have to explain why we work on plant systems, but I think there is also a preconceived idea that plant biology is somehow boring; this might be because many people studied plant biology at the beginning of their university curriculum and remember old-fashioned botany and physiology classes; they also often fail to realise that plants are a great model for molecular biology, cell biology or genetics. So, making parallels to animal or human research can help catch people's attention, and that's why I also often use this inverted gut example on my slides when I present to a non-plant biology audience.
Tell us about a favourite scientific discovery that you think more people should know about.
It was described in the late 19th century that plant cells can trigger an action potential, but this was completely disregarded at the time. Later, the phenomenon was mainly studied in plants that are hypersensitive, such as Mimosa pudica or carnivorous plants, but actually all plants can generate action potentials, which play an important part in the plant's response to the environment. This topic has received a lot of new interest in the past 10 years and people can now also measure the currents that are transmitted in the different organs of the plant – it's really beautiful!
If you'd had to choose a different field of biology to work on, what would that be?
Even though it was a bit by accident that I got into plant biology, the more I work on plants, the more excited I am to be in this field. But if I'd have had the competence or experience, I'd have loved to work on evolutionary questions in plant biology. With the available techniques, you can now, for example, reconstitute the history of the domestication of crops and identify what key changes occurred at the genomic level, and then also reintroduce some characters using CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing. I find this fascinating!
Do you have any strong views on using social media in science?
I think nowadays it's essential to use social media to be able to keep up with what's happening, whether that is new research papers in your topic or other types of science-related discussions, such as hiring people, open access or new policies on genome editing. It's actually difficult to find any resources that would keep you aware of all these discussions. Another advantage of social media is that it can help increase your visibility; so, when we publish something it will reach a lot more people than if we wouldn't have promoted our findings on social media. I've also been impressed by how much a medium like Twitter has helped me connect with scientists who I might not have met otherwise – and when going to a conference, having connected virtually before makes it easier to meet and talk to people, and serves as a real icebreaker.
“I think nowadays it's essential to use social media to be able to keep up with what's happening, whether that is new research papers in your topic or other types of science-related discussions […]”
Let's go back to the time that you set up your lab. What were some of the things you found most challenging about starting your own group?
I think the main challenge was multitasking at a level that I hadn't anticipated. I needed to hire and train people, talk to companies about buying equipment, secure funding for research, and at the same time also teach and prepare the classes. This was overwhelming, especially when I thought that every decision would have a huge impact on my career or the lab. I managed to find people who helped me figure out which things are more important than others, and it was really useful to contact people who went through setting up a lab just a couple of months or years earlier, as they still knew everything about dealing with the dynamics of establishing a group.
What characteristics do you look for when recruiting new group members?
I mainly look for people who are curious and excited, and are not afraid to question what some might consider are scientific dogmas; they should also be willing to take some risks to study new questions.
Have you received any scientific advice that you found particularly useful?
I've been encouraged to have a critical mindset and question the textbook view of how things work, and this is something I've been doing since my PhD. As a result, I often work on questions people don't pay much attention to because they are thought to be ‘known’ – but actually, when you look carefully, there often isn't any direct underlying evidence, so by pursuing further experiments and applying new techniques you can often make some very interesting discoveries.
Finally, could you tell us an interesting fact about yourself that people wouldn't know by looking at your CV?
I'm really crazy about cooking! My flat is full of cooking equipment and also different ingredients and spices that I collected while travelling around the world – I would also often return from a conference with a suitcase full of ingredients. I can spend hours doing research on the internet for the best recipes, so most of my free time is spent thinking about what to cook, preparing the meal, and then of course eating it.
Marie Barberon's contact details: Department of Plant Sciences, University of Geneva, 30 quai Ernest-Ansermet, 1211 Genève, Switzerland
Marie Barberon was interviewed by Máté Pálfy, Features & Reviews Editor at Journal of Cell Science. This piece has been edited and condensed with approval from the interviewee.