Perspectives – growing our knowledge

Researcher profile: Leif Andersson

Leif Andersson was among the first scientists worldwide to apply molecular genetics to domestic animals.
Photo: Lars Wallin

INTEREST IN THE ENVIRONMENT PAVED WAY FOR GENETIC RESEARCH ON domestic animals

Leif Andersson’s subject, functional genomics with a focus on domestic animals, used not to arouse any particular interest among either funders or colleagues. Now the field is red-hot and there has been no lack of money or attention recently. In the past few years, advances have come thick and fast.

In 2012 Leif Andersson received, first, a Senior Grant from the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation. Shortly afterwards, the same Foundation appointed him as a Wallenberg Scholar. This means that he can now quietly get on with freely developing his own research. He was also elected as a foreign member of the US National Academy of Sciences — one of the finest forms of recognition a scientist can receive.

‘It was an extraordinary year, and it’s nice to see the fruits of what we’ve done. In our research, we’d found important connections between genes and functions. And we’re now working to find out more details of the mechanism underlying these connections,’ Andersson says.

Andersson grew up in Bagarmossen and Huddinge, two southern suburbs in Greater Stockholm, and an academic career was definitely not what his family expected of him. But he was keen to learn and remembers his strong reaction, as a five-year-old, on spotting a crested tit on the bird table outside the window one winter.

‘The joy I felt! That crested tit was something completely new, not one of the usual visitors to the bird table.’

Sport, especially football, was a great interest as for many others of the same age. But after reading the controversial book Silent Spring as a teenager, he knew that nature conservation was what he wanted to work in. In his degree project, he investigated genetic differentiation between stocks of Atlantic and Baltic herring. Tenacious curiosity about fundamental driving forces in nature has characterised Leif Andersson’s thinking and career.

Becoming a nature conservationist was easier said than done, he found after graduation. There were no jobs to apply for. But at the employment office one day, by chance, he saw a small advertisement from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (Sveriges Lantbruks­universitet, SLU). They were looking for an assistant on a project where data on blood groups and genetic markers were to be collected from 40,000 horses. The purpose was to develop a tool for ascertaining horse pedigrees for breeding purposes. That was perfect, he thought — an acceptable job while he waited for the right one to come along.

After getting the job, he started commuting to Uppsala. Getting access to this large set of computerised material turned out to be a boost to his career, and three years later he was able to gain his PhD. By then, Andersson had mapped and published data about two genes that determine horses’ coat colour, and also compared them with the same genes in mice. A temporary job had culminated in a doctorate — and the realisation of what can be achieved with domestic animals as model organisms.
 
Given the opportunity to learn new techniques at the newly established Wallenberg Laboratory, Andersson did not hesitate for a moment. There, the latest cell research and work in the emergent field of molecular genetics were under way in a tremendously creative environment, with many enthusiastic young researchers.

Leif was among the first scientists worldwide to apply molecular genetics to domestic animals. At the time, in the late 1980s, this involved identifying one gene at a time: an enormously laborious task. It was hard to get funding as well. The research councils considered that genetic research was most suitably carried out on mice, yeast and banana flies, rather than horses and pigs. But he stuck to his idea, and the discoveries and publications soon ensued.

‘What saved the day was EU funding. Strategic research on domestic animals was given more weight in the EU Framework Programmes than in Sweden, and there was scope for more basic research as well.’

The unanimous acclaim his research now receives is down to both his curiosity and his patience. Fundamental questions have yielded findings with what have proved to be unexpected, interesting applications. When he wanted to find out about genetic differences between wild boar and domestic pigs, for example, Andersson was also able to identify genes that govern how muscular pigs are. This information is relevant to breeding and meat production.

His openness to cross-border collaboration has meant that he has not felt tied to any particular field. Working on mice as a biologist, among veterinary surgeons, gave him admittance to medical research and thus better funding opportunities.

‘Now I want to keep on building up our group and extending our expertise. The team is vital for the results — and that’s something I learnt in sport and have applied in research.’

Anneli Waara

Facts – Leif Andersson

Research topics: the genetics of domestic animals, herring and Darwin’s finches; and molecular genetic studies aimed at improving understanding of the connections between hereditary variation and characteristics of animals and humans.

Distinctions: the Wolf Prize in Agriculture, an Advanced Grant from the European Research Council (ERC); and Wallenberg Scholar, an honour awarded by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation. Foreign member of the US National Academy of Sciences and member of the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences, the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry, the Royal Physiographic Society in Lund and the Royal Society of Sciences in Uppsala.

Interests: nature and all forms of biology, sport (especially football), art, travel and good food.

Recipes for success: staying curious, asking the most interesting questions and choosing those that are possible to answer with the latest technology. And building a good team.

Hidden talent: fairly good ball sense and quite good at cooking.

What makes me happy: many things, but I can rejoice at simple things like the first lark of the spring or a good dinner. That helps when you’ve had a research application turned down or a manuscript rejected or criticised.

What makes me cross: waste of resources in all its forms; our lack of ability to use our knowledge and innovative capacity to bring about development of society that is more sustainable in the long term; the structural problems that make it difficult for young people to get into the employment market. And having a research application rejected or a manuscript refused for publication on grounds that I think are wrong.