María Isabel Colombo
Head of the Instituto de Histología y Embriología de Mendoza (IHEM)-UNCuyo-CONICET, Mendoza, Argentina.
Investigador Superior de CONICET.
Full Professor of Cell and Molecular Biology, Facultad de Ciencias Médicas, Universidad Nacional de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina.
President of the Sociedad Argentina de Investigación en Bioquímica y Biología Molecular (SAIB), for the period 2020 -2021.
Can you introduce yourself and your line of research?
I am a senior scientist who works at the Institute of Histology and Embriology (IHEM), an institution that belongs to the Universidad Nacional de Cuyo (UNCuyo) and the CONICET (National Scientific and Technical Research Council), in Mendoza, Argentina. At present, I am the Director of the IHEM and the leader of a very active research group. I am very committed to the training of new human resources and have been mentor of more than 20 graduate students and young scientists contributing to the development of their scientific careers. For many years I have been involved in teaching activities, lecturing courses for undergraduate students at the School of Medicine and several post-graduate courses. I also participated in the organization of numerous international workshops aimed at training post-docs and young scientists from different regions of Latin America.
Our group is interested in studying, at the molecular level, the autophagy pathway in mammalian cells. We are also interested in exploring the modulation of the transport machinery by microorganisms, analyzing different pathogens that alter and control the autophagic pathway as a strategy for survival. We have developed novel assays to study both processes and we are continuously engaged in the identification of molecules that control these transport events. Our purpose is to understand these mechanisms at the molecular level in order to develop new therapeutic strategies against intracellular pathogens. I have been able to obtain financial support not only from national but also from international sources.
What have been your most important scientific contributions?
During my postdoctoral training at the Cell Biology Department in Washington University in St. Louis (Missouri, USA), I focused on studying the molecular machinery involved in vesicular transport in the endocytic and phagocytic pathways. Using cell-free reconstitution assays I identified several proteins required for fusion between endosomes and phagosomes. I presented the first evidence demonstrating that heterotrimeric GTPases participate in the regulation of fusion between endosomes. These results were of seminal importance because they demonstrated that signal transduction mechanisms participate not only at the cell surface but also at the level of intracellular compartments. In addition I also participated in the study of small GTPases from the Rab and ARF families as well as other proteins. These studies were relevant to our understanding at the molecular level of the regulation of intracellular membrane transport events.
After returning to Argentina I continued working in the Cell Biology field and undertook independent projects identifying new molecular components involved in autophagy in mammalian cells as well as the interaction of intracellular microorganisms with the autophagy pathway. Among my main scientific contributions is the demonstration that autophagy activation in infected cells hampers Mycobacterium tuberculosis survival, resulting in the killing of the pathogen. This work was published in the prestigious journal Cell and was the result of a collaborative project with a group in the USA. The laboratory work was performed by a graduate student from my group. The results of this study were broadly announced in the scientific community, both nationally and internationally. On the other hand we demonstrated that autophagy benefits the intracellular infection of pathogens such as Coxiella burnetii and Staphylococcus aureus. Another relevant contribution was the study about the intracellular parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, the causative agent of Chagas disease, demonstrating for the first time that the activation of autophagy in the host cells favors the infection with this microorganism.
Our studies received important recognition at the national and international level such as the “Premio Anual CEDIQUIFA Dr. Bernardo A. Houssay", in recognition of our outstanding work studying the relationship between intracellular pathogens and the host cell, and the TWAS Prize in Biology for 2015, announced by the Council of The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) during the 26th General Meeting in Vienna, Austria, for outstanding contributions to the study of the autophagy pathway and its relationship with relevant human infection processes. This prize was awarded at the 27th TWAS General Meeting in Kigali, Rwanda, in November 2016.
Given the relevance of our studies I have been invited to lecture in several international meetings in Europe, USA and Japan.
What have been the main challenges that you have experienced throughout your academic and scientific career and how have you overcome those?
As a postdoc I had to stay abroad for a long period of time because the scientific situation in our country, at that time, was extremely difficult and there were no possibilities to apply for getting a position as a researcher. The openings at the main scientific institution in our country, the CONICET (somewhat equivalent to the NIH), were absolutely closed. When they were finally opened, after waiting for more than five years, I was one of only very few scientists in the whole country who were able to get a permanent position as a scientist at CONICET and also as a Professor at the University. During the following years the situation has fluctuated with highs and lows depending on the economic situation and the government. Today, although the economic situation is very critical, there is strong political support from the current government for the development of science in Argentina.
What are the major challenges faced by female scientists at your Institution?
At the beginning of my career I was the only woman as a PhD student in our laboratory and one of the few female scientists at the whole Institute. The other women were technicians or secretaries. However, today, the situation has significantly changed and around 50% of the scientists in our Institute are women and many of them are group leaders. In addition more than 60% of the PhD students or post-docs are also women. This has been a really positive change in our Institution.
The Covid 19 pandemic has shown that a segment of the population does not believe in scientific evidence. In your opinion why is there this discredit of science? How to change this perception?
At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2019, the Ministry of Science and the CONICET strongly believed in the capacity of science to aid in overcoming the terrible situation caused by the pandemic, and many groups of scientists got involved with a strong commitment to help. Several Covid-19 detection kits and kits for the determination of antibodies against the virus were developed. Likewise kits were produced for the determination of the virus at the genomic level with the detection of viral mutations and variants.
Unfortunately, in spite of this effort part of the population, although in a reduced number, and mainly due to fake news, doubts or still does not believe in scientific evidence. The only way to overcome this resistance is to convince the communications media that in the current pandemic situation it is really important and critical to tell the truth with scientific rigor.