At the Interface of Epigenetics and Neurobiology

EMBL Rome is changing. Last year we focussed our research on epigenetics and neurobiology, and as a consequence have recruited several new groups specialised in one or the other topic (e.g. see Boulard and Asari labs). Next up is a comprehensive site renovation to upgrade to a state-of-the-art campus, whilst further group leader recruitments are also in the pipeline. These are exciting times, and should remain so thanks to a new funding scheme that encourages research at the interface between epigenetics and neurobiology. This interdisciplinary funding bridges the two distinct themes at EMBL Rome and has already begun to foster cross-collaboration between groups. More broadly, the field of ‘neuroepigenetics’ is expanding rapidly and by leveraging the expertise of specialist labs on site, EMBL Rome could contribute key insights in the coming years.

I am very proud and honoured that my lab received the first Interface Grant, in collaboration with the lab of Paul Heppenstall,  in December 2017. The project aims to explore whether we could use emerging epigenetic technologies to control, and maybe even reverse, phenotypes and pathological pain driven by the peripheral nervous system. The approach fuses two technologies that are being developed by the Heppenstall and the Hackett labs, and it is hoped it will produce some of the curiosity-driven insights that has historically made EMBL a centre of innovation.

The success of the Interface funding lies in bringing together labs with very different skill-sets that can challenge each other’s ‘comfort zones’ and inspire a new way of tackling biological questions. I am already finding this out as I attempt to absorb as much information on nociceptor biology and mouse behavioural read-outs as I can. No doubt Paul Heppenstall has similar empathies towards the learning curve on epigenetic editing, and of course, a favourite topic at EMBL Rome, DNA methylation. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said “Do one thing every day that scares you”. Stepping into a scientific adventure that is only distantly related to your biological training and background begins to qualify for this.

Over the coming years we hope to see the expansion of EMBL Rome to fill an important research and service role that covers the spectrum from epigenetics to neurobiology. This includes technology development, an advanced CRISPR in vivo genome editing facility, and fundamental research insights in both epigenetics and neurobiology. Most of all however, I for one am looking forward to the potential for interaction and discovery that schemes like the Interface funding will foster by bringing labs – and ideas – together to tackle emerging interdisciplinary questions.

Author: Jamie Hackett

Jamie Hackett is a Group Leader at EMBL Rome interested in the role of epigenetic systems in genome regulation, and how epigenetic information is transmitted through mitosis and meiosis. His postdoc was at the University of Cambridge with Prof. Azim Surani, and his PhD at the University of Edinburgh with Prof. Richard Meehan.

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