Spotlight on Ari Sadanandom

18 March 2016 - By: Cornelia Eisenach

Spotlight on Ari Sadanandom

By Cornelia Eisenach

By his own account, Ari Sadanandom was not a straight-A student back at the National University of Singapore, where he studied for his first degree. And yet, since 2011 he has been Professor at Durham University. 

“I was never a very good student because I could not remember things very well, even though I tried to learn as much as I could”, says Ari. It was only when he took part in a Molecular Biology course that he found his true calling: “Genes, DNA, proteins, transcription factors … I immediately understood those things and remembered their function because it was all logical to me.” 

Quick succession

From then on, Ari knew that he wanted to do a PhD and pursue a scientific career (although in another life he would have been a professional footballer!). He decided to move to the UK where he completed a Master’s degree at the University of East Anglia and, in 1999, a PhD at the John Innes Centre with Dennis Murphy. Was his enthusiasm ever dampened at some point during his PhD? “For me it never felt like working”, says Ari. “It was always fun for me and, in fact, I enjoyed the risk-taking mentality and freedom I found in the UK. As with every PhD experience, I had bad times, but from every experiment you learn something, even from the ones that fail and I got encouragement from that”.  Progressing rapidly through two postdoctoral positions at The Sainsbury Laboratory, working with Paul Schulze-Lefert and Jonathan Jones, Ari eventually took up lecturer positions at the University of Glasgow in 2003, and then at Warwick University in 2009.

Under control

Now, Ari has built a research group around the topic of protein modification and how these modifications control how plants grow and interact with their environment. Proteins can be modified by phosphorylation, acetylation, ubiquitinylation or SUMOylation and that changes the way they work. An example is the transcription factor DELLA. The stability of the DELLA protein is controlled by ubiquitination. And DELLA stability is what gives wheat a dwarf phenotype - the essence of increased yields during the green revolution. Says Ari: “Hormones control everything in plants but protein modifications add another layer of regulation.” Protein modification by SUMOylation is the focus of Ari’s current research. SUMO stands for small ubiquitin-like modifier and SUMOylation influences how plants respond to changes in their environment, for example to pathogen attack. “When plants are under pathogen attack, lots of processes are halted and the plant stops growth and development.” This has a big impact on productivity and, as Ari explains, “it is important to understand how regulatory mechanisms like SUMOylation influence this growth arrest. This would enable us to modify plants to improve yield without compromising plant immunity too much.” 

In 2012 Ari won an ERC Consolidator Grant to apply his insights into SUMOylation to rice and, as chair of the N8 AgriFood programme in Durham, an association of eight northern UK Universities (N8), he is also overseeing research projects into resilience and sustainability of food production. As if this weren’t enough to keep him busy, recently Ari set up a joint PhD programme between the National University of Singapore and Durham University. “This will not only help to give back to my native country”, he muses,  “it also helps to drive home the message that you do not have to be a straight-A student to achieve your goals, as long as you enjoy what you are doing”. 

Category: Cell Biology
Cornelia Eisenach-RS

Cornelia Eisenach

Originally from Berlin, Cornelia completed her PhD research in Plant Cell and Molecular Biology at Glasgow University. Apart from researching plant ion channels she also helped to establish and contributed to the GIST, a Glasgow-based popular science magazine, worked at science outreach events with kids and gathered work experience at the BBC. Since 2013 she has been a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Zürich, Switzerland, and works as a science writer for the SEB, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and SciViews.