Creating a sweeter strawberry and unlocking the mysteries of cancer may seem like totally unrelated pursuits, but they have at least one thing in common – Vladimir Shulaev, professor of biological sciences at the University of North Texas (UNT).
In 2011, Prof. Shulaev led a team of 75 researchers from 38 institutions around the world in sequencing the genome of the wild woodland strawberry. By compiling the genetic “parts list” of the strawberry, Shulaev and his team paved the way for the future development of tastier, hardier, and more nutritious varieties of the fruit.
More recently, Shulaev has been investigating the processes by which certain cancer cells are resistant to oxidative stress and therefore proliferate. That research may eventually help medical researchers develop more targeted and effective treatments for aggressive cancers.
While these two scientific activities may seem diverse, they are actually different aspects of Shulaev's work at his laboratory.
“The core of our lab is high-throughput omics research,” he explained, “with the major focus on applying metabolomics to systems biology. We also do a lot of other high-throughput work in genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, lipidomics and phenomics. The larger goal is to understand and eventually to manipulate the complex metabolic and regulatory networks in biological systems.”
One of the nation's largest public universities, UNT is a long way from Prof. Shulaev's hometown of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. Kiev has had a long history as a center of scientific research.
“I'd wanted to do biology and science ever since I was a kid in school,” he said. “Just like any kid, I was experiencing the world, seeing living creatures, asking questions. And it just captured my imagination, I guess. I also had very good mentors.”
“I earned my MS degree in chemistry and genetics from Taras Shevchenko Kiev State University, which is now Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv,” said Shulaev. “Actually, my master’s thesis was focused on biophysics and the biochemistry of chromatin structure in animals. Then I switched to plants and got a Ph.D. in botany from the Ukraine Academy of Sciences. After I moved to United States, I got another Ph.D. in plant biology from Rutgers University.”
Shulaev is stimulated by the broad reach and impact of omics research. “A large focus of our work is plants but we also work with many other systems, starting with bacteria,” he said. “We did a big project on yeast and are working with the cancer and malaria research – you name it – because the metabolomics platform can be applied to many systems.
“We have made quite a few discoveries. Years ago, we discovered a new volatile plant hormone, methyl salicylate, that can be involved in plant-to-plant communication. The biggest focus in the lab now is to understand different plant- derived metabolites that people sometimes call health-related compounds, which are beneficial to human health and nutrition. By understanding how these molecules work, how they're made, and how they’re regulated, we will be able to develop plants that produce a larger number and amounts of those health-related metabolites.”
Mass spectrometry is central to Shulaev's work. “High-pressure chromatography combined with mass spectrometry is, in many ways, what makes metabolomics possible,” he noted. Shulaev refers to the lab's Waters SYNAPT G2 system as “the workhorse of our high-throughput metabolite profiling.” The lab will also soon take delivery of a Waters ACQUITY UPC2 system, which will be used primarily for lipidomics research. “Lipidomics is a large focus of the lab now – studying the structural lipids, as well as signaling lipids involved in a variety of signaling networks in plants and animals,” he explained.
For Shulaev, teaching the use of laboratory instruments is another critical part of his work. “It's very important to train the next generation of scientists, especially in mass spectrometry, which is one of the big deficiencies now,” he said. “We need to have a big pool of people who understand mass spectrometry and technology – and not just understand it, but can work on it from the very beginning in college.”
In his spare time, Shulaev likes to unplug from the world of science. “I like going out and enjoying nature, doing some nature photography,” he said. “I also enjoy cultural things, like going to museums or the opera or the symphony.”
However, after a few days away, Shulaev is inevitably eager to get back to the lab.
“There's always a question to ask and always a question to answer,” he concluded. “The challenges and our ability to answer those questions with all these new technologies are what keep us going. It's all you can ask for – a great team, great science, and great tools to be able to do the science.”