Getting to know Yan Ma, the newest Group Leader at the GMI

Yan Ma is the newest group leader at the GMI. Her research group will focus on studying how some insects like midges, wasps, flies and moths can hijack a plant’s cellular machinery to force it to produce abnormal outgrowths called galls. These outgrowths are carefully programmed to support and protect the larvae growing inside. We sat down with Yan to chat about her career so far, her future projects and why she chose to join the GMI.

What was your trajectory before joining the GMI? 

I’m originally from China, and I moved to the UK to study plant science for my undergraduate degree. I got a PhD in plant immunity from The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich. During my PhD I got particularly interested in how plant immune receptors recognize microbial pathogens. What fascinates me is that plants are much more sophisticated than we think. Although plants lack mobile immune cells like the ones in our immune system, each single plant cell has the ability to react to diverse types of stresses to protect itself. Something really cool that we found is that plants have evolved ‘decoys’ inside their cells that mimic a pathogen’s target and act as a trap to them, leading to pathogen recognition and immune activation!  

What did you study after your PhD? 

After my PhD, I moved to the University of Lausanne, in Switzerland. My postdoc research was trying to understand how plant cells can detect and differentiate different stimuli (from themselves and from the outside) and to quickly respond to them. We focused on a special cell called endodermis in plant roots.  The word endodermis literally means the “inner skin”, and it forms a watertight barrier surrounding the central part of plant roots so that they can transport water and nutrients efficiently. I investigated how this barrier is formed via plants’ internal stimuli, and how the plants ensure, at the molecular level, that there are no leaks in the endodermis.  

What brought you to the GMI? 

I always knew the reputation of the GMI as one of the top plant research institutes in Europe. When I first visited Vienna, I loved the coffee, food and culture. Then, I had the chance to attend conferences like the Mendel Early Career Symposium, and I was captured by the vibrant and liberating atmosphere at the GMI. During my interview visit, I was impressed by the facilities and resources available, as well as the level of science being performed here.  

What will be the research topic of your group at the GMI? 

We are going to study the molecular process by which some insects can manipulate plant cells to induce them to form galls. Galling insects are powerful plant manipulators that create impressively complex and diverse gall structures. The equivalent in humans would be a parasite making our body grow an alien organ. The insects deposit their eggs on plants and their larvae grow in sync with the developing gall. These parasitic galls can, in some cases, have devastating effects for the host plant. One example was the grape phylloxera pest: this disease decimated European wine grapes in the 19th century. 

How did you become interested in  galls in the first place? 

Some years ago, I was taking a walk through an oak forest in the UK, and I found an oak covered with these weird, star-shaped fruits with horns. I knew that oaks produce acorns, so I was confused by this. Later, I discovered that it was actually a knopper gall induced by a wasp: the wasp had infected the acorn and made it grow into a completely different shape. I found this “hijacking” really fascinating and wanted to find out how insects did it. And I realized that the molecular details for such phenomenon were pretty much unknown to plant scientists. 

And how will you investigate this topic? 

We’re establishing a novel model for gall formation, using the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana and an insect called swede midge that can induce galls on Arabidopsis. We will use this model to study how the insect induces changes in the plant structure, and what molecular mechanisms are involved. We believe that insects could be mimicking or producing plant hormones to hijack their development. We will try to understand this ongoing molecular battle between the insect and the plant. 

How has the transition to a Group Leader position been? 

It has been very smooth. Moving to Vienna was stressful, but in the lab so far everything is going well. The support at the GMI has really helped us hit the ground running. Of course, as a new Group Leader, you have your doubts about the decisions you are making, but I am confident that I am on the right track and that things are moving forward. I’m very happy with the team I have assembled and am excited to work with them.  

What is your philosophy as a Group Leader? 

A: My lab’s philosophy for science is integrity, curiosity and enthusiasm. As a Group Leader, I want to support the growth of people in my group and make sure that they enjoy and have fun learning and doing science. I want to encourage people to be curious and ask questions, and to not be afraid of mistakes. I take mistakes as an opportunity to troubleshoot, to stop and think and improve further. I believe failures are what make science move forward.  

What’s your impression of working at the GMI so far? 

The level of support and access to facilities are excellent, and I love the interactions with other research groups as well. The numerous seminars, especially the Monday seminars, have been an invaluable opportunity to get to know scientists from other backgrounds, and this promises new connections and stimulates new ideas. 

What are your immediate plans for your lab? 

We’re done recruiting the starting team, although we’re always open to support postdoc fellowship applications. Overall, we’re trying to set up our model system and seeing the first successes, and I can’t wait to see what we will discover!