Comparative physiology - experiencing a revolution

30 September 2015 - By: Caroline Wood

Comparative physiology - experiencing a revolution

By Caroline Wood

What happens when you bring together comparative physiologists, evolutionary biologists and geneticists in the same room? The answer: Dynamic discussion and exciting new collaborations, as was demonstrated at the satellite session “Genome-powered perspectives in integrative physiology and evolutionary biology” at the 2015 SEB Annual Meeting in Prague. During the meeting, I managed to catch up with session co-chair Michael Berenbrink (University of Liverpool).

Since his PhD days, Michael has been acutely aware of how an evolutionary understanding is critical for comparative animal physiology research. “Whilst studying acid-base homeostasis mechanisms in fish, I became aware that I needed to know how these different species were related”, Michael explains. “You can’t understand why a certain mechanism exists if you don’t know the context and how it evolved”. When the revolution in genome sequencing took off, Michael realised that this offered a powerful new approach to understanding inter-species physiological differences. “I was initially sceptical about genomics and whether it was feasible to use genomes to model cells and networks” he says. “But I realised that I could mine the new genome data available for genes of interest”.  

However, as genome sequencing has become cheaper and cheaper, allowing more exotic organisms to be sequenced, the novelty of a new species genome has begun to wear off. This can make it difficult for geneticists to publish their work in high-impact journals. “It almost looks like stamp collecting”, says Michael. “Even if it is an incredible piece of work that required great persistence, it has all been done before”. He believes that the time has come to link genomes back to physiology and whole-organism phenotypes. “This is where comparative physiologists can play a big role- they need to link up with genome scientists and help each other. But there are barriers for understanding between, for instance, those who measure oxygen consumption in fish and biomathematicians schooled in the intricacies of data mining”. 

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The SEB Prague 2015 satellite session 'Genome-powered perspectives in integrative physiology and evolutionary biology'

This was the motivation behind the satellite session in Prague. Michael’s hope was that, by bringing together geneticists and physiologists, “we can really cross-fertilise whole fields of research and publish genomes in a context that actually tells a story”. The forty or so delegates ranged from traditional comparative physiologists to those working at the forefront of genome analysis and sequencing techniques. The talks covered a wealth of topics including gene expression changes associated with digestion in Pythons, circadian rhythms and genome duplication in teleost fish. This made for some brilliant discussions between those who may never normally talk together. “I think everybody learnt something they didn’t know of before – personally, I was surprised by the big role microRNAs play in genome regulation”, Michael remarks. 

One of the key strengths about the session and, Michael believes, SEB meetings in general , was the positive and welcoming atmosphere: “It is a very friendly community and people freely speak about their ideas. Also, there is no hierarchy – you can see some of the big names in the field but you can talk to everyone”. As such, the meeting was a valuable opportunity to make new contacts and exchange different ideas. “People are already talking to each other and asking “How do you do this and that?” and hopefully there will be collaborations coming from this”. In fact, Michael first met integrative animal physiologist Andrew Cossins, with whom he co-organised the satellite session, at his first SEB meeting. “He invited me to spend three months in his lab and from then we have collaborated over many years. Likewise, I have met so many other people at SEB meetings who have been important for my career”, Michael reflects.

It seems that the session has given Michael plenty of inspiration for his own research: “I would really like to map the evolution of vertebrate respiratory adaptations on a huge phylogeny that takes into account the changes in oxygen levels in the atmosphere over geological time and the major transitions of vertebrates between water and land”, he concludes. “Such a project would adeptly illustrate the fruitfulness of working at the interface of Comparative Physiology, Evolutionary Biology and Genomics”.


Category: Animal Biology
Caroline Wood-Profile_opt (1)

Caroline Wood

Caroline Wood was the SEB’s 2014 science communication intern. Since then, Caroline has been a regular contributor the SEB, reporting on events and writing insightful features for our members.
Caroline has an undergraduate degree from Durham university in Cell Biology and is currently a PHD student at Sheffield University studying parasitic Striga weeds that infect food crops. You can read her blog here