The biennial event will serve as a focal point for the research community in the Americas
BAR HARBOR – While it is the elephants and other large animals that congregate in East African waterholes that catch the attention of safari enthusiasts, the most fascinating inhabitant of these ephemeral pools can be a small, guppy-like fish called the turquoise African killifish or ATK (Nothobranchius furzeri).
Also known as the “instant fish” due to its short lifespan, ATK grows, reproduces and ages during the four to six month window of the rainy season, an adaptation to its extreme habitat which makes it more difficult to find. made one of the shorter. existing living vertebrates.
It is also a valuable model for studying the biology of aging. Although other animal models used in aging research, such as the fly and the worm, have short lifespans – the roundworm, Caenorhabditis elegans, lives only three weeks, for example – these are not vertebrates, such as humans. And mammalian models such as mice or primates live too long to get quick results – decades in the case of primates.
ATK fills this gap by enabling rapid insight into the effectiveness of antiaging interventions while also displaying traits relevant to human aging, including vertebrate-specific genes, tissues and organs and a complex immune system. . ATK can also regenerate its tail fin and heart, which is a benefit for scientists studying the link between aging and regeneration, the research focus of the MDI Biological Lab.
With the aim of uniting the community of scientists working with this emerging model and fostering the development of tools and resources to work with it, the MDI Biological Laboratory sponsored a first African International Conference on the Turquoise Killer Fish in September which attracted around 50 scientists from countries including Belgium, China, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States.
Although several ATK conferences were held in Europe, this was the first to take place in the Americas. Plans are for the conference to be held again in 2022 and alternate with the European Nothobranchius Symposium in Europe in even years after that. Although this year’s conference was held online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, plans call for future conferences to be a hybrid of in-person and virtual formats.
The ATK conference was a continuation of the Aging and Regeneration Conferences held at the lab in recent years which attracted pioneers in the use of ATK as a research model, many of whom also attended the ATK conference.
“The ATK conference was a no-brainer for us because of our focus on aging and regeneration,” said Hermann Haller, MD, president of MDI Biological Laboratory. “But it also made sense in other ways: we have a well-suited facility for hosting conferences, a commitment to knowledge sharing on an international basis, and a distinguished history of using comparative biology to better understand the human health.”
The interface between aging and regeneration is an area of increased biomedical interest, Haller noted. While the goal of research in aging is to prevent or delay the onset of degenerative disease, the goal of research in regenerative medicine is to repair the damage that occurs. The lab’s new ATK colony, which was established last year, offers faculty and visiting scientists the opportunity to study both in a single model.
Although research at the MDI Biological Laboratory focuses on the interface between aging and regeneration, the topic of the conference was broad, including presentations on behavior, development, ecology, evolution, habitat, rearing and reproduction of ATKs, as well as on studies in which it has been used as a model for age-related diseases and conditions such as neurodegenerative diseases.
“The conference met a real thirst from the ATK research community, many of whom are new to this animal model,” said Aric Rogers, Ph.D., scientist from the MDI Biological Laboratory, who co-chaired the event with Chi-Kuo Hu, Ph.D., of Stony Brook University in New York. “The participants’ commitment to using ATK as a research tool and their eagerness to share their knowledge was remarkable.
“Yesterday opened my eyes,” said Luc Brendonck of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium, speaking on the second day of the two-day event. “It definitely broadened my perspective on the different types of molecular research going on in African turquoise killer fish species.”
Although prized by aquarists since the 1970s, it was not until the 2000s that ATK gained the attention of scientists looking for a vertebrate model in which lifespan was naturally compressed, rather than truncated by disease or predation. In fact, one benefit of ATK is that it shares many of the symptoms of aging with humans, including a decline in immune function and loss of muscle mass, even memory loss.
One of the first to use it as a model was conference participant Alessandro Cellerino, Ph.D., now from the Leibnitz Institute on Aging in Germany. Cellerino reportedly visited a fish farmer in Italy in the 2000s when he asked which species had the shortest lifespan. When the breeder pointed out the ATK with the comment “They don’t do this for more than three months”, Cellerino replied “OK, I want them.”
In addition to its short lifespan, ATK is of interest to scientists because embryos enter a state of suspended animation called diapause when the water in the basins it lives in dries up. Because the aging clock slows down during this period, which in dryness can be prolonged, the study of diapause may provide new information on strategies for preserving organs and tissues as we age.
One of the goals of the conference was to bring together the global community of scientists working with ATK to advance it as a laboratory model. In this it was a huge success: the participants exchanged notes on breeding; shared laboratory protocols, resources and tools; initiated plans to implement an online communication forum; and generally charted a course for the future.
“ATK has been around for a while, but its use as a model in scientific research is still relatively new,” Rogers said. “When you start with such a small group, you have to be prepared to help each other and share resources. The conference marked the golden start of establishing ATK as a central model system – it’s not yet a golden age, but it was certainly a golden start.
About MDI Biological Lab: We aim to improve human health and lifespan by discovering the basic mechanisms of tissue repair, aging and regeneration, translating our findings for the benefit of society and developing the next generation of science leaders. For more information, please visit mdibl.org.