Fellows Feature: Param Priya Singh

thumbnail_paramParam Priya Singh is a CEHG postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Anne Brunet. He is a graduate of the University of Pune (MS, Bioinformatics) and the Institute Curie, University Pierre et Marie Curie (PhD, Computational Biology). His research focuses on the evolution of lifespan differences and aging, using a short-lived vertebrate, the African turquoise killifish, as a model organism.

This content has been transcribed from an interview that took place on Stanford campus Monday, November 9, 2015 with CEHG’s Director of Programs, Cody Montana Sam and Communications and Outreach Manager, Katie M. Kanagawa.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

My name is Param and I’m a postdoc in Anne Brunet’s lab. I did my PhD in Paris in evolutionary genomics. And for my postdoc, I am studying the evolutionary constraints leading to lifespan differences in vertebrates. There is not much known about molecular or genomic determinants of the evolution of lifespan differences, and the diversity of lifespan in nature really fascinates me.

So how did you first get interested in aging?

I’ve a deep-rooted interest in evolutionary biology. For my PhD, I studied the evolution of genes related to cancer and complex diseases in vertebrates. Just like many of the diseases, aging is also a complex phenotype. The evolutionary aspect of aging is particularly interesting because in nature, lifespan ranges from very short (about half a year) to almost 200 years in vertebrates with the same body plan and same set of “core” genes. I wondered, what are the factors that underlie this diversity? Very little is known about the molecular or genomic basis of evolution of these traits, and I thought, with my expertise and background, I could really contribute something to solve this problem.

What mechanisms of aging are you currently studying and in which model organisms?

African killifish pic

The African turquoise killifish, courtesy of molecularecologist.com

We are using a short-lived fish, specifically the African turquoise killifish. It lives in small seasonal ponds in Africa. These small ponds only fill up during the rainy season. The fish grow in them and then the ponds completely dry up when the rainy season is over. The eggs arrest their development and remain in the pond, and then, in the next rainy season, resume and complete their development. So there are very strong evolutionary constraints on this fish to complete its life cycle during the 3-4 months of rainy season. Even if it is brought to the lab and held in captivity, its maximum lifespan is 6-9 months.

The second interesting aspect is that different strains of turquoise killifish from different parts of Africa show considerable variation in their lifespan. So I think this model provides a very interesting framework, because we know the evolutionary constraint and we have an animal we can breed in the lab and work with.

To use the full potential of this model, we have sequenced the genome of this fish. But there is still a lot to learn about the molecular mechanisms of lifespan differences, between strains of this fish and other species. So I am comparing its genome and other functional genomic information with longer-lived fish species to identify candidate genes that may underlie the lifespan or health-span differences.

Is one purpose of this research on killifish aging and longevity to uncover factors in human lifespan and longevity? Or is that completely beside the point?

I think that the knowledge that we gain from the evolutionary studies on turquoise killifish would also be relevant for human longevity. For example, the pathways and genes that underlie the evolution of a short lifespan in the African turquoise killifish may give us some clues about the molecular basis of lifespan plasticity in other species, including human.

What is it like working with Anne [Brunet]?

It is great! She always encourages us to develop our own ideas, and facilitates a very collaborative environment in the lab where we exchange data, ideas, expertise, etc. And most importantly, I think her focus is always to prepare us for our future career as independent researchers. So, for me, it has been a great learning experience so far.

Where do you see your career taking you in the next 5 or 10 years?

After my postdoc, I would like to find a PI position at a leading university and lead a lab in exploring a range of questions related to evolutionary genomics, epigenomics, and aging.

I hope that in 5 years, the African turquoise killifish will be among the established model organisms, and I would like to be able to dissect the molecular basis of its short lifespan and other interesting traits and hopefully extend this knowledge to other species and humans.

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