18. Oct. 2021

Press release;

Cytogeneticist Terezie Mandakova, from CEITEC and the Faculty of Science of Masaryk University, became the winner of this year's L´Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science competition. Other winners are Petra Lasuthova from the Medical Faculty of Charles University, and Michaela Tencerova from the Institute of Physiology of the ASCR. Terezie Mandáková is an internationally recognized scientist in the field of plant cytogenetics. She is investigating plant chromosomes and genomes. She tries to reveal their structure and understand their origin and how they have evolved over time. Her research results significantly contribute to the understanding of the development of plant chromosomes and genomes. She is co-author of a long list of high-quality scientific publications, and is often invited to present her work at international conferences, where she greatly represents Czech science. She received the Women in Science Award for her project investigating the structure of the Boechera genome. According to the Boston Consulting Group, women make up only 30% of all scientists in the world. The main goal of the global initiative For Women in Science is to support female scientists in their research and to help them create better conditions for their work. The competition, which has been organized in the Czech Republic since 2006 by L'Oréal, is awarding promising female scientists selected by an expert jury composed of representatives of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic and the Czech Commission for UNESCO.

Search for the Holy Grail of Plant Molecular Biology: Investigating the genome structure of the Boechera genus

Apomixis is an asexual method of seed reproduction in which a new plant individual arises without the fusion of male and female germ cells. An ideal model system for investigation of apomixis is the genus Boechera, which includes sexually as well as apomictically reproducing species. In addition, plants in the genus Boechera are diploid and have very small genomes. Last but not least, the genus Boechera is closely related to the iconic plant model Arabidopsis thaliana, which allows the use of a whole range of genetic and molecular biological techniques previously optimized in Arabidopsis. Terezie Mandáková uses a combination of the most modern genomic approaches in her project in order to reconstruct and compare the genome structure of sexual and apomictic plant species of the Boechera genus. This unique approach will allow her to explain the formation of chromosomes associated with apomixis and their evolutionary role. Her project represents an exciting journey towards the discovery of the essence of asexual plant reproduction.

Why is plant science so crucial for our society?

"The last year was significantly affected by the coronavirus pandemic, which overshadowed other global problems. But the fact that those challenges disappeared from the front pages of newspapers does not mean that they have ceased to exist or that they are less important. One of the biggest current problems that mankind is facing is the growth of the world's population. It is almost certain that in around 2050 there will be 10 billion people living on this planet, which is 2.5 billion more people than right now. At the same time, every seventh person on the planet already suffers from chronic malnutrition. And with current food production, half of the globe will suffer from some kind of malnutrition in the next 30 years. It is necessary to realize that all our food comes directly or indirectly from plants, because plants are the basis of our food chain. Therefore, the big task for us scientists is to increase the yield and quality of agricultural crops," explains Terezie Mandáková.

"Traditional methods of crop breeding and their potential have been around for centuries, even millennia, and current agricultural practices are almost exhausted. So, what are the options now? Today’s advances in science is offering us several molecular biological techniques that make it possible to change the genetic information of plants very precisely. Such targeted changes in plant DNA could help us obtain plants with new properties (such as larger fruits, better resistance to drought or pathogens, ability to make better use of fertilizers or fix atmospheric nitrogen). But if we want to change the text, we must first read it. If we want to change the structure of the genome, we must first sequence the genome and its structure to fully understand it. Finally, if we make a targeted change, it would be great if we were able to anchor this newly acquired trait by changing the method of reproduction from sexual to asexual (apomixis). During sexual reproduction, the offspring carries half of the hereditary information from the mother and the other half from the father. In the case of apomixis, the mother plant produces unreduced eggs and the resulting offspring are genetically identical to the mother. The possibility of not mixing hereditary information in the next generation in order not to lose the desired traits is a dream of every farmer. The ability to induce apomixis in any crop would revolutionize agriculture, and is therefore often referred to as the holy grail of plant molecular biology. If we would be able to fully understand the processes behind apomixis, we could be able to transfer our knowledge to agricultural crops, and use our scientific knowledge for the benefit of the whole society," explains Terezie Mandáková, outlining the importance of her research.

Interview with Terezie Mandakova: A science project is like a good novel

Terezie Mandáková is not only a recognized expert in her field, but also a role model for many other women. Her colleagues admire her passion for science, commitment and friendly attitude. Why did she decide to pursue a scientific career? Why is the feminine element important in science? What keeps her motivated? And why should women not be missing from science? Find out in the following interview!

How did you get into your science? What do you like about it? What is so fascinating about science?

People often ask me why is it important to study plants and if it wouldn't be better to deal with something more useful. We need to realize that plants affect all aspects of our lives: from food which we eat, through the materials we use, the clothes we wear, the drugs we use, up to the oxygen we constantly breathe. Plants are therefore absolutely necessary for the existence of mankind and also all living organisms on Earth – without plants, there would be no life on Earth.

When did you decide to pursue a career in science?

As with almost any other scientist, I have been driven by a strong desire for knowledge since high school. I personally perceive every scientific project as a good novel. When you start reading it, you encounter new characters and new environments. However, with each chapter you read, you get deeper into the essence of the story. The further you progress in the storyline, the more passion and dedication you develop for reading further. You are no longer discouraged by the fact that the book is really thick and that it will take a lot of time to finish it. Because you know that at the end you will unravel the mystery, you will understand the plot. And in science it works exactly like this.

How important do you think the female element in science is? Do women bring a new perspective into research?

The feminine and masculine elements in the scientific environment are very difficult to generalize, because not all women, and not all men are the same. Still, I'll try: Women have a different approach to science than men. Women can jump easily from one topic to another, which is our advantage. But it's not true that we are not going into depth. Not even that men think more logically. The men set a route and follow a straight line, as fast as possible to the final destination, while women pay more attention to the side roads and other solutions. This is given by different roles of women and men that we originally had in society, the male and female brains evolved for different things. The women had to protect children, the men had to hunt. The beauty is, that both is needed in science. Women and men may approach problem-solving differently; therefore, they wonderfully complement each other.

Therefore, diverse teams are, in my opinion, more creative and have a better ability to think outside of the box.

How do you manage to combine children, family and leisure time with a demanding career in science? Do you get any support from your environment?

It is not easy for a woman to be able to combine family life and top scientific work. But, I'm so lucky to be surrounded by amazing people. I have great support in my partner, who is already used to the fact that I do not have time to cook hot dinners and that I often sit in my office at home and work until late into the night :-) I am also very lucky at work, because I have wonderful colleagues whom I have the honour to also call my friends.

What do you like to do in your free time?

My job is also my greatest hobby. Doing science fulfils me a lot and I never regret the time I spend researching. However, the older I get, the more I understand the phrase “healthy body, healthy spirit” and I carefully plan my schedule so that every day there is time for sport activities. I also found an occasional escape from the exact world of science in artistic photography. Probably because science and photography have so much in common – both require imagination, playfulness and attention to detail :-)

Have you ever had the urge to quit science? If yes, what made you change your mind and motivated you to continue?

A career in science is not easy, but it is definitely worth it. In science, your experiment can easily fail, your grant application will be rejected, or one might be overworked, and furthermore science is extremely competitive. Therefore, each scientist must learn to cope well with these difficult moments. In science no progress is possible without leaving one’s comfort zone.

What is your motto that you follow in life?

I like one of Steve Jobs’s quotes, which relates not only to work but to life itself: “Only those who were so naive that they thought they could change the world could really change it.” 

Do you think that science offers a promising career path for women?

Science is so fascinating that it's simply worth it! Moreover, what could be more promising than researching things that will affect the future of mankind for many generations. And women certainly should be part of it!


We would like to thank Terezie Mandakova for the interview and we wish her all the best on her professional and personal journey!

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