Welcome to Roland Zell's homepage

Office address:

Professor Roland Zell
Section of Experimental Virology, Section's homepage
Institute for Medical Microbiology
Jena University Hospital
Friedrich Schiller University Jena
Hans-Knöll-Str. 2
D-07745 Jena
Email: roland.zell@uni-jena.de


1985 Diplom-Biologe (Diploma in Biology), Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Science, Albertus Magnus University Cologne, Germany
1988 Dr. rer. nat. (PhD in Biology), Faculty of Biology, Ludwig Maximilians University Munich, Germany
2003 Dr. habil. (venia legendi in Virology), Faculty of Medicine, Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Germany
2010 Apl. Professor für Virologie (Associate Professor in Virology), Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Germany

Curriculum vitae:

1979-1985 Studies in Biology, Albertus Magnus University Cologne
1985-1988 PhD studies in molecular biology, University of Munich and Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry, Dept. Cell Biology
1988-1992 Postdoctoral fellowship, Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry, Dept. Virus Research
1993-1995 Research assistant, Eberhard Karls University Tübingen, Department of Pathology
1996-today Research associate and lecturer, Assoc. Professor of Virology, University of Jena, Division of Experimental Virology

Research interests:

Teaching responsibilities:

Supervision of more than 80 undergraduate (Dipl.-Biol., Dipl.-Biochem., B.sc.) and graduate (M.sc., M.D., Ph.D.) students.


Sense of humour

Odd correspondence with editors:

Peter Medawar's advice to a young scientist:

'homolog' or 'homologue'?

"Over the last few months, I have learned to look forward to Gregory Petsko's comments in Genome Biology. Beyond enjoying the witticisms, I tend mostly to agree with his message. When I started reading the recent article 'Homologuephobia' (Genome Biology 2001, 2:comment1002), it was no different. Like Petsko, I hate that "ue" at the end of "homologue", and for that matter, all the other obnoxious "e"s'. I never consider having a drink in any establishment hat has 'Olde' in its name, or buying as much as a hair comb in a 'Shoppe'. And coming back to the 'homologous' problem, I think I have made a small contribution to leaner, meaner spelling by getting away with 'homolog' in many publications, albeit accepting the forced 'homologue' in many others (even as I type this, the impervious little red wave from my spell-checker is, of course, right here, under 'homolog'). So I was very much with Petsko on this momentous issue..."
Eugene Koonin, An apology for orthologs - or brave new memes, Genome Biology 2(4):comment1005.1-1005.2 (2001).

What’s homology? (1)

"Homology has the precise meaning in biology of having a common evolutionary origin, but it also carries the loose meaning of possessing similarity or being matched. Its rampant use in the loose sense is clogging the literature on protein and nucleic acid sequence comparisons with muddy writing and, in some cases, muddy thinking.
In its precise biological meaning, homology is a concept of quality. The word asserts a type of relationship between two or more things. Thus, amino acid or nucleotide sequences are either homologous or they are not. They cannot exhibit a particular level of homology or percent homology. Instead, two sequences possess a certain level of similarity. Similarity is thus a quantitative property. Homologous proteins or nucleic acid segments can range from highly similar to not recognizably similar (where similarity has disappeared through divergent evolution).
If using homology loosely did not interfere with our thinking about evolutionary relationships, the way in which we use the term would be a rather unimportant semantic issue. The fact is, however, that loose usage in sequence comparison papers often makes it difficult to know the author's intent and can lead to confusion for the reader (and even for the author). ..."

Gerald R. Reeck, Christoph de Haen, David C. Teller, Russell F. Doolittle, Walter M. Fitch, Richard E. Dickerson, Pierre Chambon, Andrew D. McLachlan, Emanuel Margoliash, Thomas H. Jukes and Emile Zuckerkandl, "Homology" in Proteins and Nucleic Acids: A Terminology Muddle and a Way out of it, Cell 50:667 (1987)

What’s homology? (2)

"One should not define homology objectively because: (a) it requires defining homology by an arbitrary amount of identity; (b) it excludes the possibility of analogy; and (c) this still does not solve the problem of our confidence that the characters asserted to be homologous do have a common ancestor. Homology is here an abstraction in that it is a relationship, common ancestry, the nature which we find important to know about, but which we can only infer with more or less certainty.
It is worth repeating here that homology, like pregnancy, is indivisible. You either are homologous (pregnant) or you are not. Thus, if what one means to assert is that 80% of the character states are identical one should speak of 80% identity, and not 80% homology.

Walter M. Fitch, Homology - a personal view on some of the problems, Trends in Genetics 16(5):227-231 (2000)

Glow of schadenfreude, lack of compassion or subtle sense of justice?

"One of the more satisfying experiences of my life was seeing a candidate for Fellowship of the Royal Society rejected on the grounds that they had published so many papers that they’d barely have been able to read all the things that came out with their name on it."
Comment by David Colquhoun on a post by Benjamin (Buzz) Baum, 22 Feb 2017, On Biology blog (http://blogs.biomedcentral.com/on-biology/2017/02/22/science-journey-search-destination/?utm_campaign=BMC40646B&utm_medium=BMCemail&utm_source=Teradata)

The Nine Circles of Scientific Hell

"In the spirit of Dante Alighieri's Inferno, this paper takes a humorous look at the fate that awaits scientist who sin against best practice. ...
Dante’s Hell had a place for everyone, and it was only Christ’s intervention that saved anyone from it; even "good" people went to Hell, because everyone sinned, and sins were still sins however ubiquitous they were. Likewise, very few scientists (the author is certainly not one of them) would be able to avoid being condemned to some level of this Inferno... but is that an excuse?
First Circle: Limbo
Second Circle: Overselling
Third Circle: Post-Hoc Storytelling
Fourth Circle:
p Value Fishing
Fifth Circle: Creative Use of Outliers
Sixth Circle: Plagiarism
Seventh Circle: Nonpublication of Data
Eight Circle: Partial Publication of Data
Ninth Circle: Inventing Data
Here, Satan himself lies trapped forever in a block of solid ice alongside the worst sinners of all. Frozen in front of their eyes is a paper explaining very convincingly that water cannot freeze in the environmental conditions of this part of Hell. Unfortunately, the data were made up."
Neuroskeptic, Perspectives on Psychological Science 7:643-644 (2012).

What’s magic about the Number 3?

"There’s something magical and magisterial about the number three. Religion has its Holy Trinity; literature has its Three Musketeers; comedy has its Three Stooges; folk music has its Peter, Paul, and Mary; thoroughbred racing has its Triple Crown; and the universe has its first three minutes. In baseball, it’s ‘‘three strikes and you’re out’’; in science, it’s the Nobel Rule of Three; and in art, it’s the three-panel triptych."
Joseph L. Goldstein, Cell 167:5-8 (2016).

The classification of viruses (1)

"We shall try to apply the rules of grammar. The word "virus" being a noun will be used as such and not as an adjective. When an adjective is needed, we shall make use of the adjective "viral." Some readers will accuse us of affectation. We hope to be forgiven for, our mother language being French, we do not feel entitled to violate English grammar. ...
If one likes the perpetuation of confusion and disorder one can, of course, well decide that the bacterium which causes psittacosis is a virus and that the poxvirus is a bacterium. Why not? If the categories are not defined and if the terms are devoid of meaning, any sequence of words can be produced. Why, after all, separate viruses from bacteria? Since the time of Aristotle, it has been conceded that categories exist by virtue of a definition. Of course, to select the valid discriminatory character of a category is a tiring intellectual effort. Yet, from time to time we have to justify our appurtenance to the species
Homo sapiens".
André Lwoff and Paul Tournier, The classification of viruses, Annu. Rev. Microbiol. 20:45-74 (1966).

The classification of viruses (2):

"A few years ago, the judicial committee of the International Committee on Bacterial Nomenclature appointed a subcommittee on nomenclature of the viruses (SCNV). As this subcommittee no longer exists it will, for the sake of simplicity, be called the defunct subcommittee.
The International Code of Nomenclature of Bacteria and Viruses was, of course, supposed to be applied to viruses and, in theory, virologists should have conformed to its rules.
Let us recall that each family must have a type genus and that the name of the family is the name of the type genus followed by the suffix, aceae, for plants and bacteria, and ideae for animals. The name of the type genus and of the family are thus coordinated. This is a very wise rule indeed. A few examples of the "decisions" of the subcommittee will be analyzed.
Picorna.—The term, picorna, was proposed by the defunct subcommittee as the name of a "group". Pico is a prefix in the metric system meant to indicate a submultiple of a unit, namely 10-12, and rna stands for RNA. Thus, picorna means 10-12 ribonucleic acid.
Moreover, it is stated in the minutes of the subcommittee that the initial letters of picorna may be taken to refer to poliomyelitis, insensitivity to ether, Coxsackie, orphan, and rhinovirus. A disease, a chemical property, a virus, a state, and again a virus. This is ridiculous.

Papova.—The term, papova, was proposed by Melnick in 1962 and endorsed by the defunct subcommittee in order to embrace the papilloma virus, the polyoma virus, and the vacuolating agent, hence pa-po-va. Let us suppose that later it is found that one of the three viruses must be excluded from the group. As a consequence, the name papova would become a nonsense name and would have to be changed. It is to avoid such a contingency that the rule was established, stating that a family must be named from its type genus. Papova, which does not correspond to a genus, cannot be the name of a family. Delenda papova!
ECHO stands for Enteric, Cytopathogenic, Human, Orphan.
ECBO stands for Enteric, Cytopathogenic, Bovine, Orphan.
N ITA stands for Nuclear Inclusion Type A (!).
REO stands for Respiratory, Enteric, Orphan.
No comment."

André Lwoff and Paul Tournier, The classification of viruses, Annu. Rev. Microbiol. 20:45-74 (1966).

Icosahedral structure of poliovirus: An anecdote.

Solving the structure of the plant viruses, however, did mean that the structure of other viruses, animal viruses, might also be determined. Picornaviruses seemed the obvious next goal. One reason was that polio virus had been crystallized by Schaffer and Schwerdt in 1955 (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 41:1020-1023). Steve Harrison tells the following story (is it apocryphal?):
Apparently Schaffer had crystallized the Mahoney strain of polio virus and his wife was going to bring it to England in her pocketbook. The custom agent asked her what it was and when she said it was poliovirus, he said: "Lady, you can't bring poliovirus into England". She responded: "But it is crystalline". The custom agent must have realized the importance of this as he let her pass.
Fred Schaffer commented on this quote and wrote:
I dug out my 1957 correspondence with Rosalind Franklin and 1957-1959 correspondence with Aaron Klug to refresh my memory. In an earlier visit by Rosalind to the UC Berkeley Virus Lab we discussed feasibility of X-ray crystallography of poliovirus; at that time the remaining material from the earlier crystallization was not suitable. When much better crystals of Mahoney strain (Biochim. Biophys. Acta 28:241-246, 1958) became available we initiated plans for the work. Indeed, the above story is in part apocryphal. It was many years later that the Schaffers made their first trip to England. Carlton Schwerdt, who had moved on to Stanford University, offered to hand-carry the first samples to England, accompanied by a "to whom it may concern" letter explaining the nature and destination of the material. Rosalind had suggested not attempting to clear the way with British Customs bureaucracy in advance, but to label the package "nucleoprotein". Anyway the sealed package including ice for temperature control was too large for a pocketbook, but a large handbag may have been appropriate. I do not recall if Carlton Schwerdt's wife Patsy accompanied him on that trip to meetings in Europe, but if so, she could have been carrying the package through customs. Preliminary work was done with those crystals, but problems arose with handling them, so a few months later a second shipment was sent commercially via Pan Am. Rosalind Franklin then became too ill to continue work, and it was this latter shipment that provided material for the Finch and Klug paper.
And John Finch wrote that:
Aaron Klug confirms that it was indeed Patsy Schwerdt who brought the polio crystals through customs with the "crystals."

Virtue of modesty

"Some time ago, R. W. Mandl paid me a visit and asked me to publish the results of a little calculation, which I had made on his request. This note complies with his wish. ..."
Albert Einstein: Lens-like action of a star by the deviation of light in the gravitational field.
Science 84(Nr. 2188, 4th Dec. 1936):506-507

Things to know

A reference for the Latin word "virus"

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.)
Sculpture by Bertel Thorvaldsen, Thorvaldsen Museum, Kopenhagen (photo: Gunnar Bach Pedersen, wikipedia.de)
Laelius de amicitia
Quin etiam si quis asperitate ea est et immanitate naturae, congressus ut hominum fugiat atque oderit, qualem fuisse Athenis Timonem nescio quem accepimus, tamen is pati non possit, ut non anquirat aliquem, apud quem evomat virus acerbitatis suae.

Laelius on Friendship
Nay, even if anyone were of a nature so savage and fierce as to shun and loathe the society of men—such, for example, as tradition tells us a certain Timon of Athens once was—yet even such a man could not refrain from seeking some person before whom he might pour out the venom of his embittered soul.

(translation by William Armistead Falconer,
published in the Loeb Classical Library, 1923)

Laelius über die Freundschaft
Wäre auch jemand von so rauher und unempfindlicher Gemütsart, dass er allen Umgang mit Menschen flieht und hasst, wie uns ein Beispiel aus Athen in der Person eines gewissen Timon überliefert wird, so könnte ein solcher Mensch es doch nicht über sich bringen, sich nicht nach jemandem umzusehen, bei dem er das Gift seiner bitteren Laune ausschütten könnte.

(Deutsche Übersetzung von W. M. Pahl)

Another insight of Cicero

"Causarum enim cognitio cognitionem eventorum facit."
[For the knowledge of causes produces a knowledge of effects. Translation by C.D. Yonge]
[Jedenfalls bewirkt die Kenntnis der Ursachen die Erkenntnis der Ergebnisse. Übersetzung R. Zell]
Marcus Tullius Cicero: Topica 67 [On Topics 67]

Biochemistry - Molecular biology

"One of the most pleasant transitions (even revolutions) in the biomedical world has been the blurring of party lines, first in research, and more gradually in teaching. I hope I am not being a chauvinist by pointing out that this transition was due to a gradual realization that biochemistry in fact pervades every biomedical discipline. How can a cytologist do research or teach without considering the biochemical nature of the cells, or a physiologist investigate secretion or nerve transmission without taking account of the biochemical elements involved? And so on.
When the term "molecular biology" was first introduced, I thought it was somewhat silly, since biochemists had been studying the molecules of biological systems since the late 1800s. I now realize it was a face-saving device for physiologists and biophysicists who had discovered biochemistry and wanted to apply it without seeming to cave in.
In any event, party lines have largely come down, much to the advantage of biomedical research and teaching."

Oliver H. Lowry, How to succeed in research without being a genius, Annu. Rev. Biochem. 59:1-27 (1990).

What's a virus?

How many viruses are there?

"As is well known, in the case of ordinary bacteria for every pathogenic microorganism discovered many non-pathogenic varieties of the same type have been found in nature, and it seems highly probable that the same rule will be found to hold good in the case of ultra-microscopic viruses. It is difficult, however, to obtain proof of their existence, as pathogenicity is the only evidence we have at the present time of the presence of an ultra-microscopic virus."
Frederic W. Twort. An investigation on the nature of ultra-microscopic viruses. Lancet, Dec. 4, 1915.

About the first communication on bacteriophages:

"Examination of the scientific literature discloses but two communications bearing on the subject of the bacteriophage. In point of priority the first is that of Hankin [L'action bactéricide des eaux de la Jumna et du Gange sur le vibrion du choléra. Ann. de l'Inst. Pasteur 10:511, 1896]. This author states that he detected in the waters of certain rivers of India a very marked antiseptic action, directed against bacteria in general, but against the cholera vibrio more particularly. Thus, for instance, the water of the Jumna as it leaves the town of Agra contains more than 100,000 bacteria per cubic centimeter, while at a distance of 5 kilometers further down the bacterial content is but 90 to 100."
Felix D'Herelle. The bacteriophage. Its role in immunity. Authorized translation by George H Smith. Williams & Wilkins Co., Baltimore, USA (1922).

Felix d'Herelle and lysogeny:

"Already in 1915, Twort had thought that the bacteriophagy might be due to a virus. This was also the opinion of d'Hérelle: bacteriophages are viruses which kill the bacteria. Lysogeny came to confuse the bacteriologists. D'Hérelle at first denied the lysogeny. Later, he became convinced that he had discovered it. None of this is important, but the bacteria producing bacteriophages posed a curious problem."
André Lwoff. Nobel Lecture: Interaction among Virus, Cell, and Organism. December 11, 1963.