Ron Plasterk on Transposon Silencing and RNA Interference
  Ron Plasterk     Biography    
Recorded: 07 Jun 2004

[I have been working with RNAi] before it was called that. I didn’t realize we were working on RNAi. I’d worked as a postdoc, on tranposons and decided I wanted to work on the Tc1 transposon of the nematode C. elegans actually because of a paper published by Scott Emmons who was then and is now at the Einstein [Albert Einstein College of Medicine] in New York. He showed that these transposons were regulated in a tissue specific manner. That is in the regular laboratory strain C. elegans, the transposons were jumping around in the genome in somatic cells. But in the germ cells, the cells that would make the next generation, they were prevented from jumping. So that experiment showed two things; one is that the tranposons were able to jump because they were doing that in the same animals, so the second thing is apparently that jumping was silenced in the germ line. I felt that here we finally have something where my background in transposons leads my future interest—the thing I wanted to work on—which was developmental biology—because it is generally regulated in development.

So that was 1983, what I didn’t know then, and for many years after, was that the reason for that phenomenon was RNA. So many years later after I had studied several aspects of the transposons, there was a graduate student in my lab, René Ketting who was studying that regulation, and isolated mutants, in which that silencing of transposons in the germ line was lost and we called those “mutators”. If you have a mutation in a mutator gene, then all of a sudden all hell breaks loose in a genome and transposons started to jump all over the place. Different transposons have different sequences, so apparently that indicated that there was a system protecting the genome against the jumping of all transposons. The surprise finding was that these mutants, these mutators were also defective in RNA interference. But, of course, that only became clear when we learned what RNA interference was. When that had been discovered by Andrew Fire and Craig Mello.

Ronald Plasterk, is a Dutch politician of the Labour Party and successful scientist and molecular genetics. He studied biology at the Leiden University and economics at the University of Amsterdam. In 1981 he received the Dutch doctorandus degree in biology. In 1984 he earned a doctorate in mathematics and natural sciences from the University of Leiden.

After receiving his Ph.D. he moved to California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and worked as a post-doc (1985-1986) on the transposon sequences in DNA in the parasite Borrelia hermsii. Plasterk was also a post-doc at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge (1986-1987) where he studied Caenorhabditis elegans, a nematode that is used as a model organism. His major area of research include genetics and functional genomics.

He came back to the Netherlands in 1987 and became a group leader and member of the board of the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam. Between 1989 and 2000 he was director of the research school of oncology at the institute. From 1997 till 2000 he was professor of molecular genetics at the University of Amsterdam. In 2000 was appointed director of the Netherlands Institute for Developmental Biology (Hubrecht Laboratory) and at the same time he was a professor in developmental genetics at Utrecht University.

In February 2007 Ronald Plasterek was appointed minister of Education, Culture and Science in the fourth Balkenende government and he decided to end his scientific career. He held this position until February 2010. He is a member of the House of Representatives and Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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