Zebrafish embryos help this new EMBL group leader study the molecular basis of resilience to environmental stressors
He may have started out in California’s agricultural heartland, but Michael Dorrity, one of EMBL’s newest group leaders, has moved from plant models to the zebrafish embryos to study developmental robustness in a changing world. Now, his work will be part of EMBL’s growing planetary biology research portfolio. Dorrity tells us more about his research, why EMBL is exactly the right place to conduct it, and why listening to the ‘sounds’ around us can be a welcome break.
1. Tell me about your research at EMBL.
Many species’ environments will change over the coming decades, so I’m looking at how the environment influences early life stages when environmental sensitivity is greatest. I’m especially interested in differences between cell types. Do muscle cells respond to temperature stress the same way as skin cells? What makes certain cell types more sensitive to environmental stress?
2. What environmental stressors most interest you?
For me, it’s temperature. The way cells mount a heat-shock response is an incredible feat of gene regulation, and we’re still learning about the details decades after the initial discovery. On a larger scale, temperature fluctuations are associated with key events in Earth’s history. Global temperature over the past 500 million years has experienced big swings that coincided with serious extinction events, but we still have extant diversity of life. Surviving lineages have experienced versions of Earth very different from the one we know today! How is that kind of history embedded into their genomes, and what tricks did they come up with to withstand temperature changes?
3. How has your research changed since you began, and what prompted those changes?
I grew up in central California where agriculture is everywhere, and I completed my undergraduate studies at the University of California, Davis. Consequently, I started my research with plants. My mentors in plant biology kept my focus broad and weren’t afraid to use new tools or organisms to answer questions.
My core interests haven’t changed much, but one reason I gravitated toward zebrafish was related to sequencing technology. Using single-cell genomics, we can profile a whole zebrafish embryo and capture a meaningful proportion of cells from a single animal. With this, we can measure individual-to-individual variation in anatomy and gene expression, which is really powerful.
Zebrafish embryos, because they develop entirely in the water, are subject to a variety of potential environmental stressors: water temperature, salinity, pH, and other nearby objects. Since nothing else can mitigate the variability during this crucial life stage, the fish must build buffering mechanisms themselves. We want to see what mechanisms they’ve built and whether they will hold up to the changing climate.
I wouldn’t say that I’ve moved on entirely from plants. If you want to learn about the environment, you must ask the plants: they sit there and experience it. They seem to have come up with good solutions to manage temperature variability – useful information for us animals.
4. What are your favourite activities outside work?
I like to bicycle, as well as kayak. I’m really looking forward to learning the landscape around Heidelberg from both vantages. We had a good haul of chanterelle mushrooms (Pfifferlinge) in Washington state this past fall – hoping my new EMBL colleagues can share good spots to find some around Heidelberg.
5. Best science movie of all time?
Is there anyone who doesn’t think that Jurassic Park is the best science movie of all time?
6. On your Twitter bio, you note being a ‘fan of sound’. Can you elaborate?
I get a lot of joy from music and listening to people and the incidental noises you hear while walking to work. A nice grounding technique for me is to catalogue sounds at a given moment – it’s quite relaxing, and you’d be surprised at how many sounds you notice then. If I had to pick a favourite sound, it might be when the wind picks up and shakes the leaves in a group of trees.
7. Why is EMBL the right place for your research?
This is the only place I’ve found that seems fully invested in using cutting-edge molecular tools to study the effects of environmental change here and now; you can really see this in the new programme, ‘Molecules to Ecosystems’. No single field will be able to chart a reasonable course forward with this, and EMBL has many different foci of expertise. I feel lucky to be part of this team.