INTERVIEW TO DARIO VALENZANO – by Lucia Rota, 3rd year PhD student and Mariateresa Mazzetto, 2nd year PhD student
- Why did you choose to do research at the very beginning?
I guess I chose research because it was something totally different for me. I grew up in a non-scientific family, so I discover by myself that there were some people doing research and I got more information while growing older and at the end I never considered anything else.
2) What was your first project about?
As a bachelor student I was very interested in animal behaviour. So I found a place in Rome where I could do ethology. I was working on monkeys, studying their way of communication through facial expressions. In particular, I was trying to understand why a specific type of South American monkeys have some completely different facial movements compared to other South American monkeys, basically what is the function of these special facial expressions. We weren’t in a scientific laboratory, most of the work was the observation of these monkeys in their environment.
3) Where does your interest in evolution come from?
I think that if you are a biologist you must have an interest in all that concerns evolution, but personally I matured my interest in it from what I read during my education – I remember I loved reading Darwin – and in particular during university, where I improved my analytical-computational skills.
4) How about aging, then? This is what most of your current work focuses on.
Right. At first I thought that aging was a very boring topic. But then, from my interest in evolutionary biology, I started to see things in a different way. I realized that aging and evolution are asking the same big questions, focusing on survival and reproduction, only they do that in a different timescale. I find this almost paradoxical and very intriguing. So I asked myself why do organisms age, which are the mechanisms, and so on. For sure meeting Alessandro Cellerino was determinant for me at that point. He called me when I was in Rome and he proposed me to work on this fish and I thought it was a brilliant idea. That was a turning point.
5) Today you have presented us an interesting work about the gut microbiota playing a key role in modulating vertebrate life span. How did did you come up with the idea of connecting aging and microbiota?
To be honest, I was surprised it hasn’t been done before. When I started my lab I wanted to use Nothobranchius Furzeri and characterize it as a model as much as I could. And I did that, with the whole genome sequencing and the generation of transgenic fish. Studying the microbiota came to my mind right after that, simply because aging is for sure related to metabolism and thus to the microbiota, and I thought we had a perfect model to study this.
6) Plenty of studies in the last few years tell us about some sort of correlations between microbiota and autism, depression, metabolic disorders, neurodegenerarive disorders. Everything is very intriguing, but how do you think this research field will evolve? Are you optimistic about that or do you think there is a better approach scientists should have, to explain mechanisms beyond correlations?
I am very optimistic, because the track is very low. There are many studies, many correlations, but few mechanistic works indeed, as you said. The main problem is that between individuals there is a huge variety in microbiota. Even under controlled conditions like in a laboratory there is still a lot of difference in the microbial composition. But it is important to underline that designated groups of bacteria in the organism can have similar biochemical functions, even in different tissues. This kind of meta-studies should be used more often to address our scientific questions about microbiota. And in the end I believe there is still a lot to know about microbiota, which is not only bacteria but also fungi, archaea, viruses and others bugs. So, there is plenty of work we can all do to discover more.
7) How does the microbiota act in so many different systems of one unique organism? Which molecules do you think might play a crucial role in this complex situation? In your talk you said that most of what you see in gene expression changes related to aging are in the extra-cellular matrix components. Do you think this could also be possible for the other cases?
I don’t know. What it seems is that the extra-cellular matrix has a signature of different microbial components and aging-related markers. In particular what we saw is that in our fish the gut microbiome shows physiological levels of fibrotic markers, but I have not a clear idea of what this means, yet. We need to check other tissues in addition to the gut, like the liver, the hearth, etc. and go deeper in the analysis.
8) You showed us how you used NGS for microbiota sequencing. What do you think about the increased use of these techniques (such as RNA-seq, other NGS techniques ecc…)for research? Can NGS be defined as the “new frontier” of biology?
Well, I think it’s already. I mean, it went from expensive machines to cheap and high-productive mechanisms, the first ones full of errors and the last ones with an improvement in coverage and quality of the final data. At the same time the development of new and advanced statistical methods for the analysis of these data and the filtering of errors helped the improvement of these new scientific processes, but we need high coverage to make these mechanisms work, because only high quantity of initial data allow a subsequent high quality of the results.
9)Will computational approaches (such as bioinformatics) replace “wet-lab” metodologies in the future in your opinion?
I think that, you know, with data analysis you can make predictions, or confirm results that were already published; there’s a lot of high-quality data from different laboratories that can be analysed. Also literature is very important: there are people nowadays that work on the extraction of literature information through the construction of algorhytms, and I think this “literature mining” it’s a necessary source of information to make connections among different results. So I think that we are becoming more and more computational but at the end if you are a biologist you need wet-lab methods.
10) What advice would you give to PhD students? How to combine success and passion in science?
I think that if you are truly passionate you’ll find your way, and if you are not you should think about what you want to do, without forcing yourself to do something you dislike.