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The Heart of the Matter

Posted Sep. 9, 2009

"Mohamed is an amazing person and a great scientist. I knew his time at the Noble Research Institute would be the beginning of a brilliant career, and I am extremely proud of his achievements."

Lloyd Sumner, Ph.D.,

In the fall of 2008, Mohamed Ali Farag returned to southern Oklahoma to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Noble Research Institute's Plant Biology Division. Farag, Ph.D., had served as a postdoctoral fellow (postdoc) in the division only four years prior, but he relished the homecoming as though he had spent a lifetime away.

On the first evening of the celebration, postdocs from every era gathered for a welcome-back reception. The room's light cast a warm glow as friends reunited to swap stories about old times and discuss new projects.

Farag stood near the doorway of the crowded room immersed in quiet conversation, delighting in the reunion. He greeted each new conversation companion with the same bright smile and kind eyes, bending his 6'6" frame over to politely listen. As the evening drew to an end, the slender Egyptian offered a unique perspective, "The Noble Research Institute is known for having great resources, but that's not what makes this place so great. Do you know what does? It's not the resources, but the people, the spirit of this place." He looked around the room. "It is this."

Farag's perspective seems to inevitably return to his passion for people. Born within the shadows of Egypt's great pyramids, Farag sought a career in science, realizing his country's need for skilled educators and researchers. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in phytochemistry (which in its simplest terms means chemicals derived from plants) from the College of Pharmacy at the University of Cairo.

When it came time to select a school for his doctoral studies, Farag looked to the other side of the world. "In most cases, Egypt lacks integration of its research. You only work on your project and don't really interact with other fields," he said. "The research in the United States is highly integrated, so, to be a better scientist and to endeavor into new research fields, I had to move."

Farag reached out to acclaimed professor Tom Mabry at the University of Texas in 1999, but discovered he was retiring. Mabry recommended his ex-student Dr. Paul Paré, a young professor who was in the initial stages of establishing a molecular phytochemistry laboratory at Texas Tech University.

Farag became one of Paré's first graduate students, helping to develop the laboratory while working on his doctorate in plant biochemistry. Four years slipped by in a mix of research and educational bliss, and, in 2003, Farag prepared to return home. He was prepared to join the University of Cairo as an assistant professor, but a few months before graduation he read a review article by Noble Research Institute principal investigators Drs. Richard Dixon and Lloyd Sumner about plant metabolomics.

Primary metabolites serve as building blocks (amino acids) or as energy sources (sugars and fats) in plants, while secondary metabolites a major interest of the Dixon and Sumner laboratories function as unique communication signals and defense compounds during plant interactions with the environment. Large-scale profiling of hundreds to thousands of metabolites, known as metabolomics, offers a definitive view of the "metabolic status" of an organism. "At the time, it was a fairly new area of science," Farag said. "I wanted to learn about this new field, so I applied for a postdoc position at the Noble Research Institute."

Soon after, Paré came to the Noble Research Institute for a scholarly presentation, and Farag tagged along to see the organization's Ardmore campus. Sumner and Farag crossed paths during the visit, which led to an official interview opportunity and, eventually, Farag being offered the position. "Mohamed is an amazing person and a great scientist," Sumner said. "He is one of the most genuine and compassionate people I've ever met, and he's a thorough and dedicated researcher. I knew his time at the Noble Research Institute would be the beginning of a brilliant career, and I am extremely proud of his achievements."

In February 2004, Farag settled into Sumner's laboratory for a 16-month stay that helped shape his future career. The Noble Research Institute researchers were investigating stress responses in Medicago truncatula, a model legume with a fairly simple genome, using functional genomics. Scientists hoped to apply the knowledge they gained from Medicago to alfalfa, an agriculturally significant legume that possesses a complex genome that makes it a poor species for genetic and genomic research.

Farag set out to study how a plant responds at the metabolite level when it experiences environmental stresses (e.g., drought or disease). His work was a treasure-trove of discovery as the group developed novel analytical tools and critical data evaluation approaches. One key finding was the gene that produces the anti-microbial compound hispidol in response to pathogen stress signals. Farag identified two genes correlated with hispidol production and subsequently showed that these genes were directly involved in the synthesis of the compound. These discoveries can now be used to engineer plants to produce hispidol to fight against fungal pathogens and disease. Farag's research ultimately provided a more complete picture of how natural products are produced and regulated during stress responses in plants.

"You cannot proceed with metabolic engineering of beneficial natural products and favorable traits until you understand and define your target compounds," Farag said. "In that sense, I helped the process a little bit, but the credit goes to the team and Lloyd. He encouraged me to pursue the research and provided direction and feedback. When I would get excited about some findings, he'd get excited as well. There is continuous mentorship at the Noble Research Institute. The principal investigators genuinely want you to succeed."

The project reaped the young scientist six highly rated publications, laying the foundation for his career. With a successful postdoc stay behind him, Farag jumped from the Noble Research Institute to the Brown Cancer Center in Louisville, Ky., where he married Maggie Abbassie, Ph.D., a researcher in drug pharmacokinetics at the University of Kentucky. The pair returned to Cairo in 2007, and Farag became an assistant professor and researcher at Cairo University.

Once again his plans to stay in Egypt were temporarily diverted by success. Farag was awarded a coveted Alexander Von Humboldt Fellowship one of the most prestigious fellowships offered in the world. He will spend the next year and a half at the Leibniz Institute for Plant Biochemistry in Germany, studying the metabolomics of medicinal plants. The work is an extension of his research at the Noble Research Institute. Since most of the world's prescription drugs are derived from plants (called "phytomedicines"), Farag proposes to employ metabolomics as a better quality control measure to ensure consistency in phytomedicines.

No matter where he travels, the Noble Research Institute remains his benchmark for a quality scientific experience. "So much is said about the resources of the Noble Research Institute and they are extraordinary," he said more than a year after the reception. "But the difference stems from the Noble Research Institute's vision, leadership and, of course, the amazing people who work there."