The Young Scientist Award recognizes professionals who have contributed significantly to advancement of the in vitro sciences, generally within ten years of completion of their terminal degree. The first Young Scientist Award was presented to Dr. Tzvi Tzfira at the 2009 In Vitro Biology Meeting held in Charleston, South Carolina.

Tzvi Tzfira

Tzvi Tzfira

Nominated by Dr. Wayne Parrott, Dr. Tzvi Tzfira is the first recipient of the SIVB Young Scientist Award.  This is quite an honor and Dr. Parrott’s nomination letter clearly states why Dr. Tzfira was such a deserving recipient.

From Wayne Parrott’s nomination letter:

Dr. Tzfira obtained his PhD in 1999, and is currently an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, where he has an 80% research and a 20% teaching appointment. Dr. Tzfira hit the ground running as an active member of SIVB ever since he started his career at Michigan. He has become prominent in the plant transformation field with amazing speed due to his cutting edge work on zinc-finger nucleases and multi-gene vector transformation in plants.  As you will note from some of his accomplishments which I have selected below, I am confident Dr. Tzfira exemplifies everything the Young Scientist Award is meant to honor, and would be a deserving recipient for the award. Dr. Tzfira’s receipt of this honor will establish a precedent of quality, high achievement and prestige for future recipients of the Young Scientist Award.

Dr. Tzvi Tzfira was an invited speaker at the World Congress on In Vitro Biology, Tucson, AZ (2008), in the plant session on “Gene targeting/homologous recombination and site specific recombination”.  He presented a paper, ‘Towards Zinc Finger Nucleases-mediated Gene Targeting in Plants.’

He has once again been invited to speak at the 2009 In Vitro Biology Meeting, Charleston, SC, for the plant session on “Plant Transgene Expression Systems,” where he presented a talk titled, ‘Modular Assembly of Multi Gene Plant Transformation Vectors.’

Though Dr. Tzfira was only in his second year as an SIVB member, he already co-chaired the joint animal-plant plenary symposium on Gene Targeting (together with Dr. Richard Heller, Old Dominion University). As the session abstract says, “Gene targeting is one of the most sought-after technologies for animal and plant improvement. Gene targeting can potentially be achieved by homologous recombination or by non-homologous end joining, leading to a variety of outcomes, ranging from gene replacement and gene repair to site-specific integration of foreign DNA molecules and site-specific mutagenesis. Speakers in that session introduced the audience to the biological barriers and to the biotechnological solutions for achieving genome editing and gene transfer in higher eukaryotic cells.”

Although Dr. Tzfira has been in a faculty position for only a short while, he is already the Graduate Student Thesis Advisor for two students, Andriy Tovkach (2005-present) and Kamy Singer (2008- present). Although it is not a criterion for this grant, Dr. Tzfira is already hosting postdocs and visiting scientists, which is highly unusual for someone in such an early phase of his career.

As evidenced by the list of manuscripts that have been published, are in print, or are in preparation with his first graduate student, it is evident that Dr. Tzfira has been an outstanding graduate student mentor.   In addition, Dr. Tzfira has excelled at mentoring undergraduate students as well, both in his current position at Michigan, and in his prior position as a postdoc at SUNY. To date, he has mentored 25 undergraduates as work-study students, as part time research technicians, the UROP (undergraduate research opportunity program) at University of Michigan, as a direct supervisor on 200, 300 and 400 level research courses and as co-sponsor for 300 level research courses in University of Michigan.

Last but not least, Dr. Tzfira has not limited himself to graduate and undergraduate students, but has helped mentor and advise high school students as well. In particular, he was the High-School Project Supervisor and Advisor for six high school students as part of a special research program in SUNY.

As a doctoral student, Tzfira authored a review paper (together with Zuker A, who was a graduate student in my department) in a popular science magazine intended for the general public on ‘transgenic plants’. The article was later adapted as a chapter in a biotechnology book by The Open University of Israel Publishing. [Tzfira T. and Zuker A. (1997). Plant genetic engineering.  The Nature of Things (Hebrew) 22: 86-107 (reproduced in: Biotechnology Principles, Vol. II. A. Freeman (ed.), The Open University of Israel Publishing, pp. 202-212)].

At Michigan, he has contributed to the “General Public and Pre-College Students” section of the Molecular Cellular and Developmental Biology website at
In particular, he has a section there, titled, “What is plant biotechnology and how can it help feed the world?,” along with a link whereby the general public can address questions to him.

As mentioned earlier, Dr. Tzfira has rapidly risen to national prominence due his timely work on zinc-finger nucleases and other work. Although he is a very new faculty member, he has already established an enviable publication and grantsmanship record. He already has 48 publications in refereed journals, as well as 23 book chapters, which is an amazing feat for this field and someone so young in his profession.

Although Dr. Tzfira is employed by the public sector, his search focus is both basic (grants from BSF, HFSP and BARD) and applied. His applied research is considered of interest to the private sector, as evidenced by private sector funding for his applied research (i.e. grants from CPBR and BRDC). He has close collaboration with the industry (his CPBR grant is co sponsored by DOW Agrosciences), yet is a step removed from specific product development.

He is clearly a young scientist who is having a significant impact in the fields of plant molecular biology and plant genetic transformation. He is highly sought-after as a reviewer and speaker. Awarding him the Young Scientist Award will reflect very positively on SIVB.

Respectfully, Wayne Parrott, Professor

In addition to Dr. Parrott’s overwhelming nomination letter, we were extremely impressed when we asked Tzvi what his current research interests were.  He explained:

“Agrobacterium-mediated genetic transformation is the only known example of inter-kingdom DNA transfer. During the transformation process, the Agrobacterium transfers a well-defined DNA fragment (T-DNA or transferred DNA) from its tumor-inducing (Ti) plasmid into the host genome, where it is stably integrated and expressed. The transfer mechanism has been extensively studied in the past three decades, revealing the functions of most of the bacterial virulence (Vir) proteins participating in this genetic-transformation process. Nevertheless, in recent years it has become clear that Agrobacterium does not rely exclusively on the function of its Vir proteins for transforming its host. In fact, at least some Vir proteins and the T-DNA molecule interact with various host factors, and the bacterium is capable of hijacking a variety of cellular processes during the transformation process, including nuclear import, protein shuttling, targeted proteolysis and DNA repair. Furthermore, Agrobacterium is capable of suppressing the expression of various defense genes at different stages of the infection process and it has therefore been suggested that the plant’s defense response may also affect the transformation process. Thus, Agrobacterium provides an excellent tool for studying not only host-pathogen interactions, but also fundamental cellular processes. Furthermore, since Agrobacterium is one of the most important tools for plant research and biotechnology, unveiling the molecular machinery and mechanisms that control the transformation process can potentially aid in the development of much sought-after means of controlling the outcome of the transformation process, i.e. the integration step.

My research interests lie in unveiling the molecular machinery and underlying mechanisms that govern the integration process in plant cells, and in designing strategies to control the outcome of the transformation process. Interestingly, T-DNA integration relies almost exclusively on the function of host DNA-repair proteins (as the T-DNA does not encode the genes needed for its integration). Yet little is known about the T-DNA-integration mechanism or about the host proteins involved in the process, due mainly to our lack of knowledge about plant DNA-repair genes and the structure of the T-DNA substrate, as well as a lack of in-vitro or in-vivo T-DNA-integration assays. I am also interested in identifying the proteins and analyzing the pathway(s) by which Agrobacterium suppresses the host defense response. Here too our knowledge is very limited, but recent data suggest that Agrobacterium may deploy the plant’s targeted-proteolysis machinery for the degradation of key defense-response genes. More specifically, in my lab we are focusing on (i) identifying host DNA-repair genes and the types of T-DNA substrates and determining their function during the integration process, (ii) studying the role of genomic double-strand breaks (DSBs) in the integration process, (iii) devising strategies for tracking and monitoring the route taken by T-DNA molecules in living cells, (iv) developing strategies for controlling the integration process in plant cells, and (v) analyzing the role of VirF in suppressing the host defense response.”

Submitted by Carol M. Stiff

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