He's a new associate editor for Molecular & Cellular Proteomics
In 2011, Steven P. Briggs at the University of California, San Diego, became an associate editor for Molecular & Cellular Proteomics. Briggs’ research has a two-pronged approach: One focuses on the innate immune system of plants, while the other delves into mass spectrometry technology so that researchers can see directly protein dynamics and interactions on a large scale. In 2007, Briggs was named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for his work on plant-microbe interactions and functional genomics. He is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences and spent the first half of his career in industry. Briggs spoke with ASBMB Today about his research interests, his thoughts on MCP and his career path. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.
Tell us what your group works on.
I have a scientific focus and a technical focus. The scientific focus is on plant immunity. Plants have immune systems, just like everything else, and it’s what makes agriculture possible. Plants can’t use behavior to escape pathogens and pests, so they must rely on inherited immunity that has to work under all kinds of environmental conditions, such as heat, cold and drought. In contrast, animals have both innate and adaptive immune systems. When I started my career, the field was called plant pathology, and we didn’t understand anything about the plant immune system. We just knew that we could breed plants for resistance – that was a key goal of agriculture for seed improvement. Over the course of my career, the plant science community has discovered the basis for plant immunity and elucidated a lot of detail about how it works. I started out in genetics, then genomics and now proteomics, because in the end, we’re trying to understand what molecules are involved and how they work. Plant biology is an extremely exciting area of science and proteomic research! I encourage the biomedical community to take a fresh look at plant biology.
The technical focus of the lab is, not surprisingly, proteomics. We do discovery mass spectrometry where we don’t know what the proteins are that we’re looking for. So we try to see everything we can and pick out the proteins that are changing in response to immune activation or are co-precipitating with a protein that we already know is important. We also work on sample prep, which is an area I think needs the most work and offers the most opportunity for progress in proteomics. Bioinformatics is another focus of the lab. Our goal is to make biology quantitative, because a fundamental goal of biology is to know the absolute number of molecules in a cell. Once you know that, you can compare your experiment with anybody else’s.
What has been your career trajectory?
I did my graduate work at Michigan State University in electron spin resonance spectroscopy. I was studying a molecule involved in plant immunity that affected lipid fluidity in the plasma membrane. I went into industry right out of graduate school and helped start up the biotechnology program for the largest seed company in the world, Pioneer Hi-Bred International. It’s now owned by DuPont. The focus was on maize as a crop as well as a model system. I wasn’t trained as a geneticist, so I had to learn genetics! As part of that, I got involved with folks at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to set up a plant science program that would build on the pioneering genetics research of Barbara McClintock, who was still active at the time. I moved to Cold Spring Harbor for three years to help get the plant group started as well as to improve my own training in maize genetics and molecular biology. At that time, in the 1980s, molecular biology was still pretty new. I then went back to Pioneer. In the late 1990s, Novartis decided to get into genomics by setting up two new institutes, one focused on drug development and one focused on agriculture. I set up the Torrey Mesa Research Institute in La Jolla in 1998. After a few years, we spun parts of the company out, and I moved over to UCSD [in 2004].
How do you view MCP and proteomics?
I was attracted to contributing to the journal because of its leadership position in proteomics. It’s an interesting time, because there aren’t many journals that are just about a technical approach, such as proteomics. They are mostly about a scientific topic. I think that proteomics is unusual because it’s probably the most difficult approach to biological science to practice. Because of that, it really hasn’t had the wide adoption that microarrays and next-generation sequencing have had. Proteomics has been around for a while, but it’s still a craft. It still requires true craftspeople to practice it.
What do you look for in manuscripts?
There are two types of papers. Some of them are about technical improvement, but most of them are applications. For the last 10 years, much of the application has been about demonstrations, the kind that say, “We can measure these molecules.” I am no longer accepting papers like that. I look for papers that enable us to draw new conclusions about biology from proteomic measurements.
What are your hobbies?
Skydiving – I’ve been doing it for 32 years. It was something I always wanted to do since I was a kid, but I grew up in Vermont, and there was nothing like it in Vermont at that time. My first opportunity was in graduate school, because there was a skydiving club. One of the genres of skydiving is making large formations. Somebody will organize an event where an invited group of divers will try to build a large formation. A few months ago, we built a 200-person formation. That was fun. ... We were diving from nine aircraft in formation, and that alone was pretty impressive to see. You only have one minute to make a formation – you have to get everybody out of the airplane, dive down to the formation and get into the assigned positions. Then everybody has to fly far away from each other so when the parachutes open, they don’t run into each other. You should try it!
What is your motto in life?
Work hard and be nice.
Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the senior science writer for ASBMB Today and the technical editor for the Journal of Biological Chemistry.