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Yes, and it can lead to a love of discovering and mentoring

Exploration. Discovery. Finding the unknown. Whether it is uncovering a biological process, discovering a new experimental tool, or gaining insights about your field of study, nothing quite compares to the excitement that comes with the revelation of new findings.

Meet Jolanta Vitkutė, with Thermo Fisher Scientific in Vilnius, Lithuania, whose scientific career was founded on exploring the unknown. Beginning at an Institute of Biotechnology, her work on restriction enzymes has significantly contributed to the scientific community, including the discovery of novel enzyme prototypes and new unique properties of restriction enzymes. In this interview, we will walk with Vitkutė through her past and current research, including what she has learned and how she uses her knowledge to give back to the next generation of scientists.

Jolanta Vitkutė

Jolanta Vitkutė
Director of Research and Development, Thermo Fisher Scientific

What is a restriction enzyme?

Restriction enzymes are one of the biggest discoveries to change molecular biology. These enzymes, which are found in a wide variety of bacteria in nature, have the ability to recognize and cleave double-stranded DNA at specific sequences, which allows the movement of genes between organisms. First discovered in the 1970s, restriction enzymes quickly became the enabling tools of molecular biology, genetics, and biotechnology by setting the stage for an era of genetic engineering (cloning).

How are they discovered?

Restriction enzymes are found in bacteria and archaea strains from different natural sources within the environment. As such, our young team would collect samples every time we would travel somewhere—even when we were on vacation. You never knew what enzymes you might find in the bacteria. The more exotic the location, the more likely that your enzymes would be novel!

What novel findings did you discover?

I spent 10 years looking for new restriction enzymes. Our small company was attempting to develop restriction enzymes as commercially available products; all in all we analyzed ~20,000 different organisms during this time. Personally, I was able to discover seven new prototypes. Two of these enzymes proved to be extremely significant to the field of molecular biology. Most restriction enzymes require divalent cations (usually Mg2+) for catalytic activity. My investigations, however, uncovered a novel enzyme that did not require magnesium. This was the first of its kind. The second finding was the discovery of an enzyme that was able to specifically cut methylated DNA. Although we now know that there is a family of these enzymes, the discovery at the time was extremely unique.

How did you first become interested in restriction enzymes?

After graduation from Vilnius University, I began to visit the Biotechnology Institute, also in Vilnius, where the main interest was around restriction enzymes. Eventually I joined the team there and began my PhD studies on Helicobacter pylori, which is located in the human stomach. I found the research to be interesting and inspiring, and there was always the opportunity to find something new, with a large amount of collaboration with structural enzyme teams, chemists, and manufacturing departments. You felt like a member of a large team, but still had individual opportunities for discovery.

How is your current work helping to progress the field of science?

I lead a team that supports all products that are manufactured by Thermo Fisher Scientific in Vilnius, including restriction enzymes. My responsibilities include quickly resolving any issues that arise while seeking to improve the quality of our existing products and technologies. We know that the most critical components of a large number of experimental workflows are enzymes. In order to help ensure the success of our customers’ experiments, it is critical to understand the types of issues our customers face and to supply them with products that will improve, rather than hinder, their workflows. Solving these difficult and complicated problems is what I do with amazing collaboration and support teams.

Was there a piece of advice that made a difference in your career?

Controls, controls, controls—they will give you confidence in your results. Gather joy before starting an experiment as it will make your time worthwhile. Don’t be afraid to try. You will be amazed at how your opinion on something can change. All of these came from an early mentor of mine, Professor Arvydas Janulaitis. He was an expert in molecular biology enzymes and was always willing to share his tips and tricks in the lab. We were providing a large number of enzymes (~200) to our customers; each enzyme was unique and required specific buffer conditions. It was Professor Janulaitis’ idea to create a universal buffer that the majority, if not all, of our enzymes would have specific activity in. Impossible, we told him. Nevertheless, he convinced us to try. After many, many, many experimental trials…we began to believe. Eventually we were able to produce a universal buffer for most of our enzymes, which was the first of its kind and also resulted in the Thermo Scientific FastDigest Buffer and enzymes that are still being sold today.

What is one thing you would tell early researchers they should remember as they start their career?

Trust yourself. We all make mistakes, but don’t change course after your first fail. Failing is human nature, and the world is not easy. Understand that it is a long journey with many bumps along the way. A good discovery will come, and you will forget all of your previous mistakes. The important thing to remember is that we are all survivors. We survive different situations and we learn from them. Always remember to come to work each day with good motivation and looking forward. How have you shared your experiences with the next generation of scientists? I am very lucky to have an amazing team around me. The people here are extremely encouraging, and they love the work. I love to teach team members the tricks of what I know and lead by example. I try to do my best and expect the best from those that follow me. I tend to be surrounded by younger scientists, which makes me feel very good. We are very smart in science, but our human nature has not changed. We are very simple people who all want to love and be loved in return.

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