First Person is a series of interviews with the first authors of a selection of papers published in Journal of Cell Science, helping researchers promote themselves alongside their papers. Alex van Vliet is first author on ‘ Exploring the ATG9A interactome uncovers interaction with VPS13A’, published in JCS. Alex conducted the research described in this article while a Postdoctoral Training Fellow in Sharon Tooze's lab at The Francis Crick Institute, London, UK. He is now an MRC Postdoc in the lab of Sean Munro at MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, UK, investigating the mechanisms of membrane trafficking.

Alex van Vliet

How would you explain the main findings of your paper in lay terms?

A cell is the smallest building block of an organism. Each cell has its own ‘organs’, called organelles, which have their own specific functions. Some organelles supply the cell with energy, some organelles are like factories to build different proteins and some organelles act like a waste disposal facility where unwanted or damaged components of the cells are broken down and recycled. In this context, the main protein that we have worked on in this study, called ATG9A, is a bit like a bin lorry or garbage truck that drives around the cell trying to identify waste that needs to be collected. ATG9A needs to cooperate with other partner proteins in order to work. In this study, we obtained a list of potential ATG9A partners. From this list, we identified a very interesting hit, called VPS13A, that forms a protein complex with ATG9A. We went on to characterize the details of this complex.

Were there any specific challenges associated with this project? If so, how did you overcome them?

One of the challenges was not really scientific. This study was still ongoing when I finished my postdoc at the Francis Crick Institute. My current supervisor, Sean Munro, was incredibly supportive, enabling me to finish this work while at my new post at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB). This transition of labs made performing some of the key experiments logistically challenging, especially during the revision. Thankfully, Cambridge is quite close to London, so I commuted on the train a few times carrying my samples in order to wrap everything up.

When doing the research, did you have a particular result or ‘eureka’ moment that has stuck with you?

The main breakthrough of the story was seeing both VPS13A and VPS13C in our interactome mass spectrometry data. We got that result at around the same time as the laboratories of Pietro De Camilli and Karin Reinisch characterized VPS13 proteins as part of a new class of lipid transfer bridge proteins. From our studies, we already knew that another ATG9A partner, ATG2A, was part of this family. This gave me the insight that perhaps ATG9A could interact with multiple members of this lipid transfer family and form distinct complexes.

Why did you choose Journal of Cell Science for your paper?

Journal of Cell Science is one of the mainstays of the cell biology research community and we thought it would be a great home for our work. In addition, I had a very nice conversation with one of the editors of JCS at a conference, which helped us decide on the journal. I also think the Forest of Biologists project is a very creative way to contribute to biodiversity through science.

Correlative light and electron microscopy (CLEM) image of membranous ATG9A compartment (red) contacting lipid droplets (blue depicts limiting membrane).

Correlative light and electron microscopy (CLEM) image of membranous ATG9A compartment (red) contacting lipid droplets (blue depicts limiting membrane).

Have you had any significant mentors who have helped you beyond supervision in the lab? How was their guidance special?

I've been very lucky to have had great mentors throughout my scientific career. I also wanted to take this opportunity to thank my previous supervisor Sharon Tooze, who created a great environment for scientific research that allowed this project (and others) to come to a successful conclusion.

In addition to my PIs, another big influence on my career decisions was my master’s thesis supervisor, Tom Verfaillie, who was a PhD student at the time. He was an inspiration and helped me to pursue my goal of doing a PhD. He was also the first person that taught me the basis of fluorescence microscopy and passed on to me his passion for cell biology. His enthusiasm for science and microscopy was infectious.

What motivated you to pursue a career in science?

To start with a cliché, I was always curious to know how things worked, so it's not surprising I've chosen a career in science. Initially, I wanted to study medicine. I changed my mind when I went to a university fair and asked how soon I would be able to do research during a medical degree, and whether I could skip the one-year hospital internship to do scientific research instead. In response, they very kindly and patiently suggested I should go visit the Biomedical Sciences booth instead.

Who are your role models in science? Why?

I have many role models in science; too many to list here. Someone in particular that I want to highlight is John Kilmartin. John did his PhD with Max Perutz in the 1960s and is currently an emeritus group leader here at the LMB. He retired over 10 years ago. However, he still comes into the lab daily and is among one of the hardest working people here. He is currently revising his latest manuscript. His passion for science and drive to answer his scientific questions is very inspiring.

Tell us something interesting about yourself that wouldn't be on your CV

Partly influenced by my 5-year-old son, I recently got into amateur astronomy and bought a telescope. It's a nice inversion, having been a microscopist studying tiny cells which are very close to me, now trying to see huge things like Jupiter which are far away. Seeing Saturn and its rings together with my son has been fantastic, I would really recommend it to anyone who has some interest in the night sky!

Alex van Vliet's contact details: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge Biomedical Campus, Francis Crick Ave, Trumpington, Cambridge CB2 0QH, UK.


van Vliet
A. R.
H. B. J.
P. A.
J. M.
S. A.
Exploring the ATG9A interactome uncovers interaction with VPS13A
J. Cell Sci.