Your work has focused on the genetic mechanisms through which Streptomyces species respond to oxidative stress. What drives you to pursue this work?
I began my research on Streptomyces biology after I opened my own lab as an Assistant Professor at SNU in 1986. Before that, I studied interaction between E. coli RNA polymerase and phage promoters at UW-Madison. Being required to create a group with other labs in the department, I chose Streptomyces coelicolor as my model organism along with E. coli. Its complex differentiation process of aerial mycelium formation linked with antibiotic production fascinated me. Specifically I chose to investigate oxidative stress response, since life in air has to have defense mechanisms against reactive oxygen species. My initial approach to finding peroxide and superoxide-degrading systems led me to finding interesting and novel regulators that sense and respond to oxidative stresses. Considering the huge genome size of S. coelicolor, with more than 1000 predicted regulators, finding novel regulators may be regarded as almost guaranteed.
One of your recent papers explored the role of lipopolysaccharide modification in drug resistance in E. coli. What did your study find and why was it important?
We have pursued genes and regulatory circuits that respond to superoxide or nitric oxide. In E. coli, we found that one of the superoxide-inducible genes turned out to encode a LPS modifying enzyme that confers drug resistance. Since host-invading bacteria usually encounter reactive oxygen species generated by immune cells, induction of this gene by superoxide could serve as an effective survival mechanism for pathogenic bacteria to persist in the host despite attacks from both immune cells and antibiotic treatment. So, it might be a good drug target to hamper antibiotic resistance.
You were the Dean of Research at SNU from 2004-2006, during the scandal concerning a Science paper on stem cell research that came out of an SNU lab. The SNU committee you assembled concluded that the researchers had presented fraudulent data and that there was no evidence the cell lines the researchers claimed to have created ever existed. Do you think the scandal has changed anything at SNU? In Korea?
Both the Hwang scandal and the subsequent efforts of the academic community to maintain research integrity had tremendous impact not only in academia, but in society as a whole. The scandal felt like a tremendous national disaster since Hwang was regarded as a national hero. He was exceptionally talented in persuading the whole country to long for what he could provide. Therefore, the investigation at SNU was not welcomed at all, and not easy to start. However, our report was accepted—although slowly and painfully. After all, people realized that the “beautified” science with lots of glittering promises is not reality. Science is not the “expectation” but the honest truth. Another thing people realized and respected was the noble commitment of the scientific community to integrity and honesty. To me this is what science can contribute to society, not to mention the fruits of scientific discoveries. The Hwang scandal was and remains painful, but summed up, it gave us more valuable lessons we can cherish.
Where do you see your field in 10 years?
With the advent of next-generation sequencing, the amount of genome information we will have in the near future is tantalizing. Discoveries with specific model organisms will continue to be valued, since experimental evidences is still the basis of scientific insights. However, our understanding of a specific organism will become much broader, since related phenomena will be suggested and compared in other organisms and communities by using genomic and metagenomic information. For example, oxidative stress responses will be understood in various groups and domains of life forms, and will begin to be interpreted in biochemical, ecological, and evolutionary aspects of the whole biosphere.
If you had to change careers today and you could do anything, what would you do?
You touched my weakest point. I hardly think of changing careers, since I usually go with my choices whatever they are. If I had to, I wish to be a farmer for half of the year, and a traveler for the other half. But this sounds very unrealistic.
What’s your favorite science book?
I like books that tell accurate scientific information with easy imaginative writing. Matt Ridley’s Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters and Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything are among by favorites.
What is something about you that most people don’t know?
I have a friend whom I have seen nearly once every week for more than 30 years. It is so lucky and wonderful to have her around my family. With her, I am serving a non-profit organization that encourages community builders.