Known for his work in plant aquaporins, Dr. Menachem Moshelion has published many papers concerning his research. He has been running a lab for the past five years at Hebrew University’s Institute of Plant Sciences and Genetics in Agriculture located in Rehovot. Moshelion’s interest in science began at the age of five, “I’ve always been interested in science. I knew it, somehow… I didn’t have excellent marks [in school], but in Biology – I always got an A.” Moshelion “always knew” he wanted to be involved in the biology field. Although he started in animal science, one course in plants was enough to change his direction. After completing all of his degrees at Hebrew University, Moshelion did his post-doctorate in Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium – a small city 30 kilometers from Brussels.
Dr. Moshelion first began his study of aquaporins in plants toward the end of his PhD. Aquaporins are membrane channels in a cell that allow water and other small substances to go through. He continued with this subject during his postdoctoral research. Once he returned to Hebrew University and opened his lab, Moshelion enlarged and expanded his research by moving from specifically the cell to the whole plant's water relations. His main question was how plants can survive in rough or harsh environments, where they may or may not have water. "My question always began at the cellular level. I wanted to understand how a cell can control the whole plant's water regulations and what are the cellular mechanisms involved in this process," Moshelion explains, "Aquaporins are a main part of this. I was sucked into the question of how could we improve a crop's stress resistance." He found that by modifying some plants aquaporins, a lot can be learned about cellular regulation and the plant’s adjustment to stress resulting in either more or less yield.
Moshelion's lab focuses on molecular modification where they use a lot of genetical engineering to change specific aquaporins in the cell and modify them. In the beginning, Moshelion and his students, studied aquaporins the cellular level measuring the physiological impact on the cell - the RNA level, protein levels, and so on. Today, he has gradually begun to spend more time going out to the fields and greenhouses to see how the whole plant physically expresses the modified aquaporin.
The lab's model crop is tomatoes. They also work with arabidopsis, which Moshelion explains is not a crop so it doesn't provide any economic yield. However, one can assume, under a certain amount of doubt, that if something works with arabidopsis, it should also affect crops the same way. Most of the time, experiments are first done on arabidopsis because the plant is very easy to grow, transform, work with, as well as genetically manipulate it. Once he thinks he found something, Moshelion and his students will try the same procedure out on the tomato. Of the 37 aquaporins in the tomato, Moshelion and his lab are focusing on 2 which they found had the most impact on water balance.
So far, Dr. Moshelion has found that aquaporins are changing the water balance in plants. He compares water balance in plants to balancing your bank account. A person has a specific income and certain expenses and his goal is to find the ideal middle to live. Plants absorb water from the soil and they lose it via transpiration. He explains that, "Transpiration is a side effect of photosynthesis. During photosynthesis a plant opens tiny pores in the leaf which allow CO2 to get in, while at the same time water is going out. It in the best interest of the plant to open the stomata as wide as possible in order to maximize the CO2 , but it loses water and water is the limiting factor. Deciding when to leave the stomata open and when to close it is a very very complex and gentle play." When certain aquaporins are expressed, the plant can start losing all of its water and become completely dried out. Other aquaporins block the stomata, so the pores stay closed all the time and no water is released. Moshelion has realized that expressing different aquaporins has a direct effect on the plant's water balance. "What we are looking for is to find a specific aquaporin, expressed in a specific place, in a specific time. We want to change the water balance to be more efficient, more economic to the plant. In this way, we can maximize the photosynthetic results by either minimizing the loss of water or spending more water in the hopes of maximizing photosynthetic profit." Moshelion compared plants to gamblers. Plants have a certain amount of water and they have a choice to spend it wisely or unwisely. Some act conservatively and lose the minimum amount of water possible, however they aren't growing so fast. Others plants, which Moshelion refers to as "risk takers" spend a lot of water. "We have found that many of the crops we are growing are risk takers. During evolution humans taught plants to be profitable, so we breed them to lose water and gain CO2 . We are unsure whether these kinds of plants will survive in the field. Nobody knows exactly what is happening here, we are just looking at the outcome. We are looking at the plants and its measurements and ultimately are trying to learn how the aquaporins' mechanism works."
Moshelion is involved with research collaborations within Israel as well as abroad. His main collaboration is with others in the Soil and Water Department in Hebrew University, specifically Dr. Rony Wallach and Dr. Uri Shani. Although their questions are based around what happens to the plant's root in the soil - collaboration is easy as both Moshelion, Wallach, and Shani's interests are in the water. Moshelion has other collaborations with people studying aquaporins and other stress related genes. Additionally, he collaborates with other researchers working on sugar metabolism, flowers and other aspects of plants.
Moshelion's message to those interested in starting in the Science Research field: Be ready for a lot of hard work, frustration and disappointments.
"Whether you are a PhD or even a masters student, you must know that scientific research is a very hard job. You are your own boss. Research is really independent work and while you can think together what is the best approach to ask questions, nobody can tell you what is the best way to find the answer. A PhD is a philosophy doctor and your job is to ask questions. There are many ways to ask the same question and many experiments that might answer these questions. Many times you think you have the right question and the right experiment – and its very frustrating to find out that the answer is not what you expected. You know where you want to get – but you never know where you are going. Sometimes you get different results than you expect – and it takes you out of the way – so you have to be ready for disappointment… Science is really demanding – especially when you work with living creatures because you have to make sure everything is working all the time – you can’t just leave something and go.
Science is addictive. Come to the lab at 4 AM and there is a good chance you will find people working here, sleeping here. It doesn't feel like you are coming to a job because we are always trying to answer new questions and solve new problems. On one hand it can be fun and interesting, but on the other hand - research can be really frustrating and demanding. I always tell people - if you like research - go for it! Don't hesitate! But, know it will be very hard."
Dr. Moshelion loves the academic freedom that comes with academic research. He says that with biotech industrial research, “the business is the motivation, so you have very little freedom of action... You must go according to a stiff schedule and the business program… I think the whole point [of science] is not the experiment you do, its not the lab work – because its pretty boring – its the questions you ask and then the results you get back, the thinking you do.”
To learn more about Dr. Menachem Moshelion visit his website.
To learn more about Plant Aquaporins read:
KALDENHOFF, R., BERTL, A., OTTO, B., MOSHELION, M., & UEHLEIN, N. (2007). Characterization of Plant Aquaporins Methods in Enzymology, 428, 505-531 DOI: 10.1016/S0076-6879(07)28028-0