Studying the understudied in human biology: a chat with Margherita Yayoi Turco

FMI’s newest group leader Margherita Yayoi Turco (right) talked to the Com
FMI’s newest group leader Margherita Yayoi Turco (right) talked to the Communications Team about her work, mentors and more.

Margherita Yayoi Turco is FMI’s newest group leader, leading a team of researchers who will investigate how the placenta develops and works together with the mother’s uterus during early pregnancy. She talks about her fascination with conservation biology, why 3D clusters of placental cells are important for understanding early pregnancy in people — and how she ended up featured in one of the world’s top lifestyle magazines.

Why did you become interested in science? As a kid, I was fascinated with the natural world. In elementary school, I had a really cool biology teacher who taught us about animal and plant cells, and I remember going: ’this so interesting!’ At university, I studied Veterinary Biotechnology because I was interested in the reproductive technologies that would allow the conservation of animals. I did my undergraduate thesis in a small lab in Teramo, Italy, where researchers were cloning the endangered wild European mouflon using eggs from domestic sheep. That’s how I got into development. Then, I got sidetracked into stem cells and placental biology.

What questions is your lab trying to answer? In humans, the uterus and the placenta interact in an intimate way: the fetal placenta invades the maternal uterus, and many pregnancy disorders are due to abnormal interactions between these two tissues. In the lab, we want to understand how this all works. The major question that we’re trying to answer is, how do these two tissues interact? We also want to understand how the uterine lining regenerates every month, and how the placenta generates its various cell lineages.

How do you study the placenta and uterus? To study the human placenta, animal models are not good, because their type of placenta is not as invasive as the human one. So, in the lab we use 3D self-organizing structures, called organoids, derived from early human placentas. To study the endometrium — the uterine lining — we use endometrial organoids derived from biopsies. Organoids are excellent models to study the placenta and uterus, because they retain the various molecular features of those tissues and can recapitulate their functions. Using organoids, we can study how the tissues self-organize and investigate the mechanisms that regulate the generation of different cell types.

How does it feel to conduct research that could impact millions of women? That’s definitely a responsibility, and it’s really important how we communicate the findings of our research. It’s also a big motivator: women’s health and human pregnancy are such understudied areas and are obviously very important.

In 2019, you started your lab at the University of Cambridge in the UK, and this year you moved to the FMI. Tell us more about your current team.
Two people moved from Cambridge to Basel: Ridma Fernando, the lab manager, and Konstantina Nikolakopoulou, a PhD candidate who works on the regeneration of the endometrium. We also have two new recruits: Elisa Magistrati, a postdoc who will work on how placental cells invade the uterus, and Lisa Frugoli, a PhD candidate who will model interactions between the uterus and the placenta. Next year, we plan to recruit another PhD candidate and postdoc.

What motivated you to join the FMI? I was looking for a place where I could focus on basic biology, have scientific freedom and grow as a scientist. At the FMI, there are lots of different research areas, but it’s all focused on basic-biology mechanisms that might have biomedical applications — which I think is exciting. Also, I heard lots of great things about this place and its scientific environment.

What’s the best part of your work? I enjoy being part of a team and tackle big questions together. I also enjoy meeting people along the way: for example, in 2018 I was contacted by a scientist who is working on the conservation of endangered Przewalski’s horses. He was trying to derive endometrial organoids from the horses to understand how to improve reproduction in these animals. I was happy to help him do that, because that made me connect to what I was passionate about when I started my scientific career.

Who inspired you in your career path? My postdoc mentors, Ashley Moffett and Graham Burton, really shaped my attitude towards science. Both have been pioneers in the field of placenta research and could always see the bigger picture. They’ve always been supportive of everything: they’re my scientific parents.

Speaking of mentors, what’s your mentoring style? I found that some people like continuous feedback, whereas others prefer to have more time to reflect. So, I try to understand those different characters and approach them in a way that works best for them. Leading a group and being responsible for others when I feel like I still need to grow is a big challenge.

Today, do you still have mentors who help you? I continue to be close to my postdoc mentors. Here at the FMI, I asked Prisca [Liberali] to be my mentor, because she is an inspiring person and has pioneered exciting quantitative-imaging approaches to study organoid systems. She’s always so helpful, enthusiastic and supportive. I also have ties with people who work on organoids in Cambridge: many are women, and I turned to them to get some advice when I was applying here.

If you could chat over coffee with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be? Anne McLaren: she was a British developmental biologist at the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge, and sadly passed away in 2007 in a car accident. Her work helped lead to human in vitro fertilization, and she often discussed the ethics of studying embryos. So, I’d be really curious to hear what she would think about recent efforts to create embryo-like structures from human stem cells. She was also interested in conservation biology and involved in a project aimed at collecting and storing DNA samples of endangered animal species. I would have loved to meet her.

For your work on human placental organoids, you were featured in British Vogue as one of the 25 most influential women of 2019 . How did it feel? When they called me, I thought it was a joke, but then I looked it up — and it was real. Vogue and other major media outlets, including The Guardian , had covered the study in which my colleagues and I detailed the first organoid model of the human placenta , and the person who contacted me was genuinely interested and excited about what we do and what it would mean for women’s health and pregnancy. I’m not a person who likes to be in the limelight, but it was fun. It was also inspiring to hear about other women who have made important contributions to society. That same year, I also got the L’Oréal Women in Science fellowship award. Both were nice recognitions for the hard work I had done.

What’s one thing that people couldn’t find out about you by looking at your CV? When I was in university, I needed some money on the side, so I was singing lounge music. It was just for fun, but one of my songs ended up being used in a big clothing company’s commercial in Asia.

Margherita Yayoi Turco was born in Tokyo, Japan, to a Japanese mother and an Italian father. At 18, Margherita moved to Italy to study Veterinary Biotechnology at the University of Bologna. She later did a PhD in Molecular Medicine at the European Institute of Oncology in Milan. Margherita conducted her postdoctoral work in the labs of Ashley Moffett, Graham Burton and Myriam Hemberger at the University of Cambridge, UK. There, she developed the first organoid models of the human placenta and uterus. From 2019 to 2021, Margherita was a group leader at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Pathology. In September 2021, she joined the FMI as a junior group leader. She lives in Basel with her family and her hobbies include cooking and cross-country skiing.
’ Learn more about the Turco research group.