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Feb. 21, 2018

Christoph Benning: Facilitating collaborations

Christoph Benning is an MSU Foundation Professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and plant biology. Benning is also the director of the MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory.

Coming from Germany as a graduate student in the 80s, I was attracted by MSU’s large number of well-renowned plant scientists. A prestigious German fellowship and contacts by my former adviser in Freiburg, Germany opened opportunities for me to study at different U.S. institutions. Comparing annual reports and faculty bodies, I chose the MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory for my doctoral studies. Thus, I ended up receiving my Ph.D. in 1991 from the genetics program at MSU under the mentorship of Chris Somerville.

From MSU, I went back to Germany to run an Independent Young Investigator group at the Institute for Genbiological Research GmbH in Berlin. As this place went into liquidation five years after I arrived, I was in a hurry to find a job to support my family.

I received two job offers back in the U.S., including one from MSU. What originally had attracted me to MSU, the large number of possible collaborators in the plant sciences and the outstanding research facilities, did the trick for me again, and I joined the Department of Biochemistry at MSU in 1998, where I made my way through the ranks to full professor.

Most of this time, my lab was located in the Biochemistry Building, where I enjoyed interacting with my colleagues on a multitude of scientific problems. My students and I also made countless trips across Wilson Road to the Plant Biology Building to interact with other plant scientists.

Fast forward to 2012, the new, shiny Molecular Plant Sciences Building was completed, and we had the honor to be the first lab to move in. What was special about it was the open floor plan, as opposed to isolated labs, which presented opportunities for interaction, sharing of resources and development of new collaborative projects.

As such, my direct neighbor, Eva Farre, Department of Plant Biology, and I co-mentored a recent Ph.D. graduate, Eric Poliner, on a project involving a new algal model organism. Keep in mind that Eva works on circadian rhythms and I on lipid metabolism, two areas that might seem to have little overlap, unless you collaborate on the daytime regulation of lipid metabolism in algae. We ended up sequencing the alga’s genome and developing molecular tools to engineer it.

When Greg Bonito, Department of Plant Soil and Microbial Sciences, moved in next to my lab, I scratched my head because he worked on fungi and their symbiotic partners. I saw no way we could possibly collaborate. Little did I know that one of the postdocs in my lab, Zhi-Yan (Rock) Du, and Greg started talking over lunch in the common spaces of the MPS building, cooking up the idea that oil-producing algae and fungi may synergistically make more oil than either of them alone.

I admit, I did not buy it, but knowing better than insisting on my greater experience, I let them follow up on their ideas. Sure enough, one day I come into the lab seeing several people staring into a computer screen. The image that fascinated them showed algal cells living inside a fungus. In fact, Greg and Rock had discovered how to reproducibly study the beginnings of endosymbiosis in the test tube, a process as fundamental to biology as evolution itself.

In 2015, I was offered the position of director of the MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory, and I moved again, from the MPS building into the Plant Biology Building. The PRL is founded on the idea of collaborative work, and as a recent example, Rock and Ben Lucker, a postdoc in David Kramer’s lab, collaborated on research that combines our lipid expertise with the Kramer lab’s photosynthesis knowledge. Another collaboration features recent Ph.D. graduate, Kun (Kenny) Wang, working on chloroplast proteins and their effects on plant defense with graduate student Quiang Guo, from Gregg Howe’s lab in the PRL.

As these snippets suggest, young inquisitive minds find plenty of fertile ground for collaborative research at MSU, if we, the “experienced people,” let them do “their thing.” To me, these examples show that the right facilities, such as the MPS building with its open areas, or institutes, such as the PRL with its collaborative make-up, combined with the right mindset, make MSU one of the best places in the nation — maybe the world — for young scientists to succeed in the modern plant sciences.