The Big Picture

Shin-ya Miyagishima (pictured left) applies a diverse array of techniques drawn from biochemistry, microscopy, genetics, and bioinformatics to construct a coherent picture of the evolution of chloroplasts and mitochondria. This large kit of tools--combined, according to his mentors, with unusual maturity--have yielded 30 publications, including papers in Science and Nature, and three Early Career Awards. All of this has marked Miyagishima as a rising star in the world of plant and cell biology. But an 11-month-old son and a wife who is also a promising young researcher help him keep things in perspective.

The Road to Research

Miyagishima considers himself a cell biologist who uses plants and cyanobacteria model systems, noting that plants have the same organelles as other organisms plus chloroplasts. He became interested in cell biology as an undergraduate at the University of Tokyo; his first research experience came during his senior year when he worked on characterizing the biochemistry of the yeast 1,3-beta-glucan synthase.

After graduating with a B.S. in 1997, Miyagishima turned his attention to plants. But because he wasn't sure that plant biology was right for him, he decided to "give it 2 years." He looked into other scientific jobs, such as science management and journalism, just in case a research career didn't work out. It did.

Seeking Clarity in Division

For his Ph.D., Miyagishima stayed at the University of Tokyo and soon joined the laboratory of Tsuneyoshi Kuroiwa. In Kuroiwa's lab, Miyagishima published prolifically and found a niche for himself in research. Kuroiwa "gave me many chances to think by myself and struggle by myself," he says. "He allowed me to write papers by myself and also do experiments by myself.” By the end of those 2 years, Miyagishima knew he had found his calling.

Miyagishima's thesis work has helped elucidate, with unprecedented clarity, the sequence of events that occurs during the division of chloroplasts and mitochondria. His studies also uncovered molecules that catalyze division within the chloroplast and the cytosol. His thesis was recognized for its range and scope by two awards from scholarly societies in Japan and, later, by an early career award from the American Society of Plant Biologists.

Believing that each new applicable skill offered the possibility of yielding new knowledge about the machinery of mitochondrion and chloroplast division, Miyagishima mastered as many as he could during his doctoral studies. He used electron and immunofluorescence microscopy alongside other biochemistry and cell biology techniques to identify components of the plastid-division apparatus and to better define their biochemical functions. Late in his doctoral training, he learned some bioinformatics in order to compare and contrast similar genomes. Then it was off to Michigan State University (MSU) to learn even more new skills.

The Postdoc

Miyagishima's MSU postdoc added genetics techniques to his tool kit and expanded the range of model organisms he employs. As a graduate student, he used green and red alga, which he favored to study organelle division because it divides much faster than plants, allowing him to do more experiments in less time. Red alga also provided him with another benefit; it allowed him “to synchronize chloroplast and mitochondrial division.” His time at MSU gave him the opportunity to broaden his studies by looking at Arabidopsis--a small flowering plant--and cyanobacteria, a chloroplast ancestor.

For a young scientist, Miyagishima "is exceptionally clear thinking and perceptive,” says Katherine Osteryoung, associate professor of plant biology and Miyagishima's supervisor at MSU. “He practices extraordinary self-discipline in planning, executing, and writing up the results of his experiments.”He “interprets and expresses his findings … with a depth and insightfulness unusual for someone so early in his career.”

Two-Career Couple

Miyagishima works hard, but he doesn't allow his work to keep him from his family and family responsibilities. While his wife was on maternity leave, he headed to the lab at 10 a.m. and came home around 6 p.m. He went back to the lab around 10 p.m., but not before taking care of their son while his wife slept.

In September, Miyagishima's wife and son went back to Japan, where she took a position at RIKEN. “I’d like to be here [longer]. But now my wife and my baby are in Japan, so I have to go back,” he says. Recently he, too, accepted a position at RIKEN, as a group leader. He will be joining his family in March.

Clinton Parks is a staff writer at MiSciNet.

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