An interview with Nick Irwin, the newest group leader at the GMI

Nick Irwin is the newest group leader at the GMI. His research group will focus on studying horizontal gene transfer in various plant organisms to understand how this rare but important process has shaped the evolution of species. We sat down with him to chat about his career so far, his future projects and why he chose to come to the GMI.

What was your trajectory before joining GMI? 

I’m originally from Vancouver, where I got my bachelor’s and PhD. During my PhD I studied evolutionary biology, and I got particularly interested in discovering new organisms that are weirder than the rest. For example, there are single-celled organisms that have “legs” that allow them to run around, or a type of algae with crystalline chromosomes. I was trying to understand where this weirdness comes from, and one of the most interesting things I learned about was horizontal gene transfer. 

What is horizontal gene transfer? 

It’s a biological process in which a gene from one organism can, somehow, end up in another species. This gene could originally come from a complex cell, but also from bacteria or even viruses. And it can be picked up by another cell and used for a different purpose. A crazy example is the fact that, in mammals, the placenta is in part formed due to the activity of a viral gene. We somehow stole a gene from a virus and that allowed us to create the placenta, which is essential to how mammals reproduce. 

Fascinating. And how did you study these events? 

After my PhD, I moved to Oxford, where I spent three years working on computational models to identify events of horizontal gene transfer between species. I developed a pipeline that can look up the evolutionary tree and detect these events. However, I had a hard time applying those findings I found on the computer and studying them in the lab. 

And that brought you to the GMI? 

Yes. I initially met other group leaders from the GMI at various conferences, where I was amazed that they could use plants as model organisms to study such complex molecular mechanisms, including evolution. I realized that they were doing science in a very different way, on a scale that I had never seen before. That opened up a lot of possibilities for my research.  

So you have never worked with plants before? 

I haven’t. But I realized that they are the perfect model for the kind of research I pursue. Being at the GMI, I can have access to resources like the Arabidopsis seed bank and the Chlamydomonas deletion library, which will make my research much more scalable. In addition, I will be able to use plant models that represent a lot of evolutionary diversity in the tree of life, from unicellular Chlamydomonas to non-vascular plants like Marchantia and vascular plants like Arabidopsis. This will hopefully allow me to establish some mechanistic basis as to how horizontal gene transfer has shaped evolution at all these different stages. So, by working at the GMI, I will be able to study not only basic questions of cell biology, but also how those affect the formation of the whole organism. 

What will be the biggest challenge to start your group? 

I think working with plants will represent an interesting learning curve. I have a lot of experience working with microbes, but working with something that I can’t see under the microscope is uncharted territory to me. But this is great, because it will give me a completely new perspective on the questions that I’ve been investigating for so long. Hopefully, looking through a different lens will show us the right answers. 

What has impressed you the most about the GMI so far? 

I find it amazing that the whole institute has such a strong culture of collaboration. If you look at the papers that are published by GMI researchers, almost all the different research groups contribute to them, which is unheard of elsewhere. And of course, the first time I came here I was fascinated with the facilities. Once I saw them, I understood how it is possible to do research at this level. I had never worked in a place with resources like the ones we have available at GMI and the Vienna BioCenter. 

How has the transition been? 

It has actually been very smooth. Starting a new job and a new lab can be a daunting process, especially when you couple that with moving to a new country, but the staff and lab support at the GMI have been amazing at making sure that I had all the resources and assistance I needed in the beginning. Also, the City of Vienna makes relocating extremely easy, as well as being one of the best living destinations in the world. 

What are your immediate plans for your lab? 

I’ve been recruiting some people and starting the first projects, and overall trying to figure out what the best workflow is going to be for our group so that we can make the best of our time and resources. I can’t wait to see what we will discover!