Tautvydas Shuipys Q&A with fall 2020 graduate and 2019 berns award winner

Tautvydas Shuipys has had a passion for plants and science for many years. During his time with the UF Genetics Institute, he combined these passions into an academic endeavor that resulted in meaningful research outcomes, an invitation to speak at the inaugural ASPB Plant Synthetic Biology conference in 2019, and the Berns award in 2019 for his significant contribution to the scientific community.

In this Q&A, he discusses his academic interests, recent research, and future goals in the field of synthetic biology. Being on the forefront of this technology is exciting to Shuipys, as it allows researchers to speed up genetic operations within plants that otherwise would have taken more time and let in added elements of uncertainty inherent to the process.

What are your primary PhD interests?

"Going into graduate school, my two main interests were plant biology and microbiology. In both cases, I was interested in how advances to our understanding of genetics and the ability to manipulate genomes could be used to help adapt plants to our changing climate or identify new ways to combat microbial growth. After doing my rotations, I chose to focus my graduate research on plant biology."

What interests you most about your field?

"Until relatively recently, the only way that plants could be improved was by repeatedly breeding and selecting plants with the best traits. Now, with advances in molecular biology and genetics, we can identify the specific sequences in a genome that regulate the traits of interest. Using this information, we can not only speed up traditional breeding by taking out some of the guesswork, but we can also use genetic engineering to add, remove, or alter DNA sequences directly. This is what I’m most excited about – that genetic advances have given us a wider range of ways to study and alter plant biology."

How would you describe your research and research goals?

"For my research project, I set out to characterize a new small molecule that could alter how plants grow and develop under red light. This peptide, when produced within our model plant species, Arabidopsis thaliana, seemed to reduce sensitivity to red light and made the seedlings appear similar to those grown in complete darkness. With plants reliant on light not only for photosynthesis but also for cues to coordinate proper development, I was interested to study the exact effect of this new peptide. More broadly, this project served as a case study to analyze the utility of a new system that generates small peptides that would affect plant growth through the expression of short, random DNA sequences."

How can your research impact others?

"Projections of human population expansion show that it will outpace increases in crop productivity, while other hurdles like increasing global average temperatures and emergence of new pests and pathogens place large strains on our agricultural systems. Identifying an alternative way to enhance plants instead of relying exclusively on improving genetics could help ease that strain. Plants already use small peptides to regulate growth, so the aim of the Random Peptide Project was to develop a new tool that could be used to quickly generate thousands of new small peptides and screen them for effects on plant biology. My project helped to validate this approach by showing that it could generate peptides with very specific effects on plant growth. Additionally, the peptide that I characterized may be useful in future experiments related to plant light sensing and response."

Which of your academic accomplishments are you most proud of thus far?

"I am most proud of having been invited to speak at the inaugural ASPB Plant Synthetic Biology conference in 2019. Each year, the American Society of Plant Biologists hosts a large Plant Biology conference that brings together researchers from all around the world to discuss new research in plant science. In 2019, ASPB also decided to hold an additional conference focused on the application of synthetic biology in plants. The idea of synthetic biology is to engineer new enzymes, pathways, and systems instead of simply relying on what is already available in nature. It was an honor to present the Random Peptide Project to this audience and to discuss my characterization of the peptide that altered development in red light."

What are your goals moving forward, now that you have graduated?

"In January, I will be beginning a postdoc position to study the persistence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in food systems. The very reason I became interested in science and research was the desire to contribute to something much bigger than myself and expand humanity's wealth of knowledge. Being able to make a meaningful impact in our understanding of this virus that has so significantly affected the lives of people around the world seemed like an especially fitting way to start to my post-graduate work. In addition, this work relates to my other scientific interest: microbiology. Eventually, I’d like to continue research as an industry scientist or within a governmental agency like the USDA."

What advice would you give to someone wanting to pursue similar academic interests?

"My advice to someone following a similar path would be to attend seminars, workshops, and conferences! As a graduate student, you’ll have opportunities to hear many different talks and to learn about lots of cool research. It is, however, very easy to fall into the mindset that you could run more experiments instead of branching out. Take the time to attend some of these talks even if they don’t specifically relate to your work. You never know when and where you might find inspiration. At the very least, you will have learned about something new!" ∎


Photos courtesy of UFGI and Tautvydas Shuipys.