Undergraduate science communication intern Mira Cheng sits down with speakers from the weekly IGI Seminar Series to discuss their innovations, motivations, and eclectic hobbies.
Dr. Jon Suzuki is a Research Molecular Biologist at the USDA-ARS in Hilo, Hawaii. I interviewed Dr. Suzuki when he spoke at the IGI on March 5th, 2019. An abridged version of our conversation appears below.
MC: Could you please briefly describe your journey into science and your career path?
JS: “I was always a person who was interested in biology—animals and plants. I pursued [this path] in college, I majored in biology and I worked at a biotech company for a while. Then I went to graduate school [and did] a molecular, cellular, and developmental biology graduate program at Indiana University. My passion has always been plants, I wanted to understand how plants work.”
MC: Who were your role models throughout the journey?
JS: “When I was an undergraduate student, my first exposure to lab work was in Roger N. Beachy’s lab. He is famous for first proving this concept of pathogen-derived resistance. I wasn’t working on that project [then], but later on the other end of my career I [ended up] working with pathogen-derived resistance; so that was really serendipitous in a way.”
MC: How did you come to work on the project that you are going to talk about in the seminar lecture?
JS: “This is a project that I am planning. I’ve been involved with viral-resistant papaya for 15 years. I was a post-doc with Dr. [Dennis] Gonsalves, who was a driving force behind the development of the original virus-resistant papaya. We want to develop a new super-resistant papaya that will be resistant to other strains of virus and other pathogens. We hope to use CRISPR to make it easier to commercialize modified plants.”
MC: How exactly would CRISPR aid your project?
JS: “With traditional transgenics you have to go through EPA, FDA, and different regulatory agencies. International markets also have regulations on GMOs, some of them are very strict. That applies for Hawaii papaya because we have international markets to Japan and Canada, and Japan is very strict on the use of GMOs. It seems that [the Japanese] regulatory agencies won’t consider CRISPR-edited plants to be genetically-modified, as long as [the process] doesn’t involve any foreign gene insertions. Within the United States, USDA is stating that they won’t regulate [CRISPR-modified plants], but that might not be the case for all foreign markets.”
MC: What do you hope to achieve with this project?
JS: “One of the tools that you need for CRISPR is a genome. We have one for the papaya, and we would like to perhaps expand to other traits. Pathology is the primary [trait we focus on] because usually that affects the production the most. Hawaii is only a small [producer], but papaya is grown heavily in many countries. It will be beneficial for [these] other countries, since papaya has many nutritional benefits, making resistant plants will be beneficial for nutritional value.”
MC: What are the most common worries that people voice to you about genetically modified organisms?
JS: “That [transgenic plants] are not healthy for you. That maybe nutritionally [GMOs] have allergenics, or some things that will cause harm to your health. Also [people worry about] gene flow: contamination of non-transgenic plants with pollen from transgenic plants. [People] just don’t like the concept of genes that are not from plants in plants.”
MC: What do you do to address these concerns in your research?
JS: “We have some studies about the prevalence of gene flow. Also, some of the peculiarities of how we grow papaya reduce the prevalence of gene flow. Most of the papaya that we grow are hermaphrodites and they usually self-pollinate before the flower opens, so that reduces the [transfer] of pollen.”
MC: Where do you see your field in ten years?
JS: “I think there will be vast ability to improve disease-resistance and quality traits [in plants]. Previously, we were focused on just a few traits (mainly pathology traits), [we will start] going towards more sophisticated modifications to improve nutrition and other important traits to feed the world.”
MC: What is something that you do a lot that people wouldn’t necessarily expect?
JS: “Gardening, I love animals and plants. I love native Hawaiian plants. We have to preserve our biodiversity in Hawaii. Although we work with a lot of these food crops and non-native commodities, the native species are important to preserve while they’re still there. Hawaii is a hotbed of biodiversity, and we have high extinction rates in bird and plant species, so we are very conscious about preserving biodiversity for the future.”
MC: What is your favorite plant?
JS: “Maile, it’s a lei plant. Maile is a vine, it’s very fragrant and grows in the forest. It epitomizes Hawaii in a way. We give [these leis] on very special occasions —it has many symbolic meanings. It’s a nice icon for what Hawaii is about, and maybe what society should be about. The native plants really tell you a lot about what’s important.”
MC: What advice would you give young scientists?
JS: “Have confidence in yourself, be open-minded, and try to forge ahead with courage. In order to accomplish something you have to be comfortable in your own skin, and be sincere to your aspirations, then can you really pursue it with full passion. If you want to accomplish something big you need all the energy that you can get, and that requires a lot of passion and conviction.”