Interview with Singaporean ERC Grantee Dr Ari Sadanandom

Categories: Meet the researchers


I am the director of the Durham Centre for Crop Improvement Technology and Reader (Associate Professor) at the University of Durham, UK. In my relatively young career as a plant biologist I had the privilege of discovering novel genes and mechanisms in plant stress biology that go beyond the state of art. This discovery process has allowed me to develop an instinct for identifying and revealing new facets of fundamental aspects of plant biology. I believe this intuition will be crucial for establishing myself as a leading independent researcher. Publications from my laboratory and others have begun to establish ubiquitin (Ub) and Ub-like proteins as central modifiers of signalling mechanisms in plants. My laboratory has contributed to revealing that ubiquitination allows eukaryotic cells to respond rapidly to intracellular signals and changing environmental conditions by adjusting the levels and activities of key proteins. My research papers have citations of more than 1300 times indicating the influential nature of my work in such a short career time. My unique insight into protein modification mechanisms has allowed me to make groundbreaking progress in plant stress biology, all the while constantly publishing these findings in high impact journals, such as Nature. I serve on the editorial board of Scientific Reports and New Phytologist, both journals with an international reputation.

My efforts to maintain a good profile in the protein modification and plant stress signaling research area has been recognized with a prestigious 5-year European Research Council (ERC) consolidator grant aimed at defining the role of SUMO in plants. The innovative nature of our work was rewarded with multiple industrial consultancies, grants and two recent patents.

With an average success rate of 12%, securing an ERC grant is far from easy. Each competition attracts a large number of proposals from promising research talents across the globe. Excellence is the sole criterion for selection. There are neither thematic priorities, nor geographical quotas for funding. The aim is to recognise the best ideas, and confer status and visibility to the best research in Europe, while also attracting talent from abroad. That the ERC’s approach pays off has been highlighted most recently with the award of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Medizine to two ERC Advanced Grant holders.

Currently, four Southeast Asian researchers are among the highly talented ERC grantees. One of them is Singaporean Dr Ari Sadanandom, a plant biologist with the University of Durham in the UK where he heads the Durham Centre for Crop Improvement Technology. Dr Ari Sadanandom was awarded an ERC Starting Grant worth 1.5 million Euro in 2012. Here he tells EURAXESS Links ASEAN about his work.

Dr Sadanandom, can you describe your research in accessible terms?

The project concentrates on rice, which is the principal food source for a vast part of the world population. Up to 75% of rice yields are lost due to lack of water and high salt levels. In order to combat these threats, plant scientists are developing crop strains equipped to survive in these conditions. The new plants would overcome their natural response that is to stop growing when facing environmental stress.

This is a considerable challenge because rice production is water-intensive. If we can make the production of rice more efficient, then the impact on the water supply will be correspondingly less acute: a particular benefit in areas with unpredictable rainfall. To answer this problem Dr Sadanandom gathered an inter-disciplinary team including geneticists, biologists and plant breeders.

Their research aims to identify the molecular mechanisms which control the plants’ responses to adverse environments and develop a drought-resistant and less salt-sensitive strain of rice. If successfully developed, this new generation of crops has the potential to raise both yield and quality.

More widely, the data generated by this project could provide the basis for the technology to be applied to other cereals varieties.

What would you pick as the scientific highlight of your career so far?

The discovery of the role of the protein degradation system in plant innate immunity.

You were raised and educated in Singapore and you are currently working in the UK. How important do you think is mobility to researchers?

Working in different cultures gives you space to evaluate your priorities and think about your carreer path and goals. This, in my opinion makes you a better scientist.

Do you maintain research ties with institutions in Singapore or do you have any plans for research collaborations?

Yes I have just set up a joint PhD studentship programme with the Department of Biology at the National Univeristy of Singapore.

How has the ERC Starting Grant made a difference for you?

Has allowed me to pursue my scientific goals with greater pace and urgency.

What advice do you have for young researchers in Singapore or ASEAN applying for the ERC grant?

Come up with a really good idea and just apply for it.

What research problems and areas are you likely to explore in the future?

Discover how phytohormones allow plants to better adapt to their environment.

How do you spend your time when you are not engaged in research activities?

Play with my kids and take long walks with my wife.

Thank you Ari!