08 June 2021 – Our children and grandchildren are shaped by the genes they inherit from us. But life experiences such as sickness and starvation can also affect descendants by influencing how their genes are expressed. “Understanding these effects in humans is very complicated because of our long lifespans, so we turn to the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans,” says new EMBO Member Oded Rechavi, a group leader at Tel Aviv University, Israel. “Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance is mediated by molecules such as small RNAs, which can regulate the expression of genes. Life experiences such as hunger, viral infections, or extreme temperatures can change the profile of small RNAs inherited by descendants, impacting their lives for better or worse. We want to understand the mechanisms driving inherited gene regulation that can, for instance, prepare offspring for similar hardships.”
Until recently, the idea that your life history can affect the next generation was very controversial – but in C. elegans, at least, it is now better understood.
The short lifespan and simplicity of C. elegans provides a powerful way of exploring these puzzles. “Roundworms produce hundreds of progenies that are almost genetically identical. We can control their environments and study fundamental mechanisms by making very precise genetic manipulations,” explains Rechavi, whose group explores a stunning range of questions, such as how small RNAs can affect roundworms’ abilities to find food, fight disease, and even pass on memories across multiple generations. “Until recently, the idea that your life history can affect the next generation was very controversial – but in C. elegans, at least, it is now better understood. While we do not know that what we discover in worms is also true for humans, the work raises important questions: are these phenomena conserved in other organisms? Can small RNA inheritance affect the process of evolution? Which mechanistic details are we missing?”
I hope to use my EMBO membership to organize cross-disciplinary events, build further collaborations, and spread the word about the work we are doing.
Rechavi is renowned for creative approaches: one long-running collaboration with an archaeologist and biblical scholar has helped piece together the mysterious Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient religious manuscripts that have been a source of great intrigue since their discovery 70 years ago. “These texts are 2,000 years old and include the oldest known version of the Bible,” he explains. “They were written on parchment made of animal skin. By extracting ancient DNA from the scroll fragments, we were able to piece them together based on their genetic similarity. Our broad approach to research makes life interesting and fun. I hope to use my EMBO membership to organize cross-disciplinary events, build further collaborations, and spread the word about the work we are doing. I am honoured, proud, and delighted to have been elected.”