Farewell & thanks to Ortrun Mittelsten Scheid

At the end of March, Ortrun Mittelsten Scheid will retire from GMI.

Ortrun Mittelsten Scheid has been a senior group leader and inspiring mentor at the Gregor Mendel Institute since 2004. Ortrun accompanied the institute from its earliest days onwards: In 2004, the GMI was four years old and the current building at the Vienna BioCenter still under construction. Ortrun and her group were first hosted in rooms at the “BOKU”, before moving to the Vienna BioCenter after the opening in 2006. An unusual situation, which Ortrun saw as an opportunity. “For me, it was a chance to contribute to GMI’s development and atmosphere. How often do you get the chance to accompany a brand-new institute’s formative years?” And Ortrun continued to contribute significantly to the GMI and its further development: After founding scientific director Dieter Schweizer retired, she acted as interim scientific director of the GMI from 2007 to 2009. “I stepped up when it was needed.”

During her nearly twenty years at GMI, Ortrun and her group shed light on many aspects of epigenetic changes in plants. “I seek to understand the tight connection between genetics and epigenetics: the genetic make-up determines how epigenetic mechanisms are implemented, while epigenetics determines which genetic changes can occur at all.” In more than 40 scientific publications published during her time at GMI, Ortrun and her co-workers explored this interplay between genetics and epigenetics. Their contributions range from the discovery of an epigenetic double lock – with two chromatin modifications contributing to high stability of epigenetic states – to how light can inhibit, rather than induce, seed germination.

Ortrun and her colleagues also advanced the methods available to plant geneticists. In their most recent paper, they present a method for tracing a cell’s lineage using the genetic scissors CRISPR Cas. Over her career, Ortrun deliberately published exclusively in open access journals or journals run by a scientific society. “I considered it important to publish consistently in the direction of accessibility for all.”

Even in light of her many advances, Ortrun says “My true impact are the people with whom I have worked over my career.” At GMI, she has mentored 12 PhD students, 12 postdocs and numerous undergraduate and internship students – too many to keep exact track. Ortrun also worked closely together with colleagues, pursuing projects with many scientific “neighbors” at the Vienna BioCenter, in Austria and across Europe. Ortrun’s research was supported by grants from FWF, WWTF, GENAU, Epigenome NoE, OEAD, FemTech, COST, Plant Fellows and ERA-CAPS.

From everyone at GMI: Thank you, Ortrun!