April 8, 2019

Interview with new group leader Guillaume Diss

Guillaume Diss joined the FMI as a new Quantitative Biology group leader on March 1. His research focuses on understanding the mechanisms whereby genetic variation translates into phenotypic variation – for example, in diseases. We spoke to Guillaume to find out more about him and his research, and to hear about his first impressions of the FMI.

Can you explain the focus of your research?
I’ve always been amazed by the complexity of a cell, and I want to better understand that complexity. How do these millions of molecules in a cell interact to make complex cellular processes work? I’m keen to learn more about this network of interactions that determines the phenotype of a cell, and how it evolved throughout evolution. The work of my group here at the FMI will therefore focus on understanding how genetic variation (mutation) leads to phenotypic variation through perturbation of molecular networks, and how mutations can act synergistically. To do this, using yeast as a model organism, we will combine quantitative genetics, biochemistry and systems biology approaches, together with modeling and computational biology, to develop quantitative and mechanistic models of mutation effects. Ultimately, we want to understand the general principles of cellular organization.

How would you explain the relevance of your research?
The paradigm for classical Mendelian genetic diseases is that, if you have a given mutation that is strongly associated with the disease, you are going to develop the disease eventually, if you haven’t got it already. But now that we’ve sequenced the genomes of tens of thousands of people, we’ve encountered individuals that bear the mutation in question, but who are healthy. This is probably due to the presence of other genetic variants within these individuals’ genomes that can compensate for the disease variant – a phenomenon known as epistasis. This illustrates the fact that, in order to understand the genetic basis of a phenotype, we need to take the genetic context into account and understand the molecular mechanisms determining the potential epistatic interactions that a given mutation might establish with other variants in the genetic background. This is even more important for complex diseases, where we can’t identify a single or even a few mutations responsible for the disease. Instead, many variants in someone’s genome might jointly contribute – often in non-additive, epistatic ways – to the disease phenotype. Understanding how someone’s genotype, as a whole, defines their phenotype will allow us to develop personalized treatments tailored to each individual’s unique genetic background.

How do you plan to set up your group?
As of today, I already have a lab manager in my group, Dominique Klein. A PhD student will be joining our group in May, a postdoc in June, and I have an open position for the next round of PhD recruitment. As I will get funding through grants, I will hopefully be able to recruit more people.

Why did you decide to join the FMI, and what are your first impressions now that you’re here?
I had the ambition to try to get to one of the best places, which offer the right environment for my research, as well as for my motivation and personal development. I’m thrilled to have been appointed as a group leader at the FMI. The FMI has an excellent reputation among researchers – I’m reminded of that whenever I tell someone that I got a job at the FMI! Now that I’m here, I’m pleased to be interacting with researchers who have different scientific backgrounds and areas of research, but who have a similar mindset and approach to tackling their own scientific questions. In addition, everybody has been welcoming and helpful. And I’m quite excited to start using the excellent technology platforms we have here at the FMI.

How does it feel to be a group leader and what is your long-term career goal?
Moving from a postdoc to a Group Leader position is definitely a big jump – probably the biggest jump in a scientific career. I can feel that my role has changed; people consider me differently – well, I’m a leader now! That still feels a bit weird sometimes. Of course, my role comes with more responsibilities, and I’m well aware that the career of the people in my group will depend on me. I have to say, this makes me a bit anxious! My ambition is to do everything right from the outset, and I want my group and myself to have a successful career, so I put quite a lot of pressure on myself. Of course, I’d like to get a tenured position one day, but getting tenure is not a goal per se, it’s somehow just a step in a successful career. My goal is to become a scientific leader in my field.

You spent the past four years in Barcelona; how does it feel moving to Basel?
Barcelona is an amazing, dynamic city, with excellent food and a fantastic climate. We had a good time in Barcelona, but now my wife and I are thrilled to be living in clean, efficient – and also quite dynamic – Basel. The quality of life is definitely as high as in Barcelona – and there are the mountains nearby! Moreover, I find Swiss people very courteous and helpful.

» More about Guillaume Diss on the FMI website


About Guillaume Diss
Guillaume is French and grew up in Strasbourg. He has an MSc in Molecular and Structural Biology from the University of Strasbourg and a PhD in Biology from Laval University, Quebec City, Canada. After finishing his PhD in 2014, he worked as a postdoc at the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) in Barcelona. He joined the FMI as a junior group leader on March 1, 2019. He is married and lives in Basel.