“We Are Trying To Understand What Happened In The Process Of Human Evolution”

Interview with Professor and scientist-biologist Philip Haytovich. The key question for molecular biology, neurobiology and neurology today — the molecular nature and evolution of consciousness and the mind of man.

At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries thanks to the revolutionary discoveries in the biology of humanity, it became known that the brain is the Keeper of consciousness, memories, skills and personality. The study of the brain is one of the largest and most important areas of modern biology. For decades, the brain was engaged anatomists, physiologists, geneticists and biochemists.

Now, thanks to the accumulated data maps of the expression (process of synthesis of RNA or protein encoding their DNA — Prim. Ed.), genes and protein synthesis in the brain. However, historically, researchers have not paid adequate attention to the lipids (the group of substances including fats and fatlike substances — approx. Ed.).

Perspectives for the study of brain lipids are really great. Understanding the mechanisms of aging and pathologies (mental, neurological, and neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinsons disease and Alzheimers disease) to the very nature of consciousness. On vc.ru interview with biologist and Professor at Skoltech Philip Haytovich, who spoke about the research of lipids of human brain.

Philip Haytovich — Russian scientist, Professor at Skoltech, Director of the Institute for Computational Biology in Shanghai (The CAS-MPG Partner Institute for Computational Biology), graduate of the Biological faculty of Moscow State University. Known for his work in bioinformatics, genomics, proteomics and lipidomic nervous system, published in key academic journals including Nature, PLoS, Science and others. The work of Khaytovych dedicated to the evolution of the human nervous system and the aging process.

How did your academic career?. I was born in Moscow and studied at an ordinary Moscow school, which called for the children of workers, which are not even taught foreign language. In high school I decided to enter the faculty of biology of Moscow state University and began intensively to prepare for admission. In other universities the documents are not filed and, fortunately, did the first time.

While on the faculty of the Department was considered to be a stronger, more interesting and prestigious in my time were two of the Department Virology and molecular biology. I chose molecular biology. In my last year of biology American colleagues have chosen to graduate school.

I was — and so was at the University of Illinois at Chicago (University of Illinois at Chicago). I was lucky. My supervisor was Professor Mankin, who was also a native of Russia.

Laboratory manikin studied classical studies. The mechanism of functioning of ribosomes and antibiotics, so the topic of my PhD thesis (PhD) belonged to the classical biochemistry. After defending my dissertation, I wanted to work in a new direction, so I applied for the position of post-doctoral research fellowship (a position which receives researcher, defended PhD — Prim.

Ed.) at the max Planck Institute (Max-Planck-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Wissenschaften), where he was engaged in research on molecular mechanisms of human evolution. Did research work in Germany stereotypes about her pedantry.

In my unit there was not a single German scientific leader, because the max Planck Institute is an international organization. My direct boss was from Sweden, another chair was American, the third French, fourth Swiss. So I have not had the opportunity to meet personally with German thoroughness, but I about it too heard.

For six years we have been studying the molecular organization of the human brain in comparison with the organization of the brain of other species. In particular, we compared the human brain with the brains of chimpanzees and macaques, to understand whether the human brain has some unique features. This work happened when a large-scale study of gene expression was just beginning, so the results were quite obvious. In 2006, you have been lured to China.

Since I completely changed the theme of ribosomes on the evolution, methods of biochemistry analysis of gene expression, then, of course, it took a while to retrain. Ive worked on a new theme and had to look for a job as team leader or supervisor. I filed several applications with CV, I took. University in Jerusalem, genomic centre in Barcelona and the Institute in Shanghai, which I chose.

And why did you choose China. There are better conditions of work or funding?. I realized that there I was unable to access more resources, not only in terms of financing, but good students who will productively work on such a crazy topic like the evolution of man.

You took to lead an entire institution?. No, first I was in charge of the laboratory and only since 2012 has become one of the Directors.

“One of” because the Institute in Shanghai is organized according to the scheme similar to the max Planck society, where each direction has its own Director. And I became one of three Directors of the Institute. In Russia, you can compare your Shanghai Institute in terms of size, number of employees?.

It can be compared with the research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The total number of employees of about 300-350 people, of which about half are graduate students, and undergraduates, and other researchers and professors. That is, you become Director of the Shanghai Institute in 2012, and in 2014 you received an offer from the “SKOLKOVO”?.

Rather, I was interested in “Skoltech”. I was wondering whats going on here. Back in 2013 I sent a resume and went for an interview at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of technology — a strategic partner of the “Skoltech”). At first I didnt want to go full time, because its not clear whats going on here. But it was interesting.

It was a personal interest — look at the project and return Home — or still interested in special working conditions?. No, only to return Home, see what happens, how you can participate.

If you compare all the countries where you have worked in China was the best climate to work, the degree of freedom and better funding?. So not really correct to compare, in China, I was one of the Directors of the Institute, therefore, I had very good working conditions. If I was a graduate student, it would be the other conditions.

For example, in the max Planck Institute good funding, in Shanghai was not worse in “Skoltech” the situation is more complicated, has to fight for funding, seek external funding sources, even taking into account investments in “Skoltech” from the state. Nevertheless, there is nothing complicated here, and thats fine, we cope with this task. What is the difference between laboratories in Germany, USA, China and Russia?.

Strong difference in the work of the laboratories there. All good labs are the same, and all the bad things the lab are somewhat different from good. As you combine all of your work in Russia and China?.

My Shanghai laboratory will be closed soon, as my contract ends there. Theres still staff because it was left unfinished grants, but I have almost not been there, all the time I spend in “Skoltech”. You will soon be a separate modern laboratory in the new building?.

Yes, soon will be a lab in the basement of a nearby building. A separate building for our laboratory is not provided, but in the construction of a large building campus Skoltech in addition to classrooms and laboratories will be a practical laboratory. There we hopefully move in the end of the year or early next.

What is the job of the supervisor?. Master degree supervised by Professor Gelfand. I do not have their offices, I am an ordinary Professor at Skoltech. But, of course, as a supervisor, do undergraduates and graduate students in terms of academic and research work.

What work do you consider key?. The subject matter is quite specific.

We are trying to understand what happened in the process of human evolution, what were the events that determined the particular mans place among the variety of life forms on the planet. Our laboratory is truly one of the best. Although in this direction about a dozen laboratories in the world, so to be the best of a dozen is not too difficult.

What we have done — we have found mechanisms that can potentially explain why the person has a unique cognitive abilities. But experimentally, we confirm this until could not, therefore, to say that we have discovered the key to consciousness or understand the human brain would be premature. But we already know that the lipid composition of the membranes of the chimpanzee and macaque are more similar than chimpanzee and man. It is likely that our brain is intensively changed during the last few million years.

This largely correlates with the data of paleontology. If we talk about recent works, you can focus on lipids. You compared them from different agencies were compared from different parts of the brain. The most important conclusions of what?.

The study of metabolites or lipids is an array of information that will allow them to better understand the organization and operation of such a complex system as the human brain. I dont understand why so few of those who do it. This is a potentially important source of information.

The results of our study interesting. We found that the composition of the membranes of the brain is very dynamic and changes significantly with age. Some, but not all, cognitive disorders are also accompanied by changes in the lipid composition. For example, the autistic such changes are almost there and patients with schizophrenia are considerable.

How to interpret it, we dont know. The first steps are always very interesting and with the deepening and expansion of our work we will understand more. Now we can say that the composition of the membranes of the brain is a very dynamic and quickly evolving system.

It is obvious that many studies, including studies of diseases of the brain, cancer, development and aging and variability in the human population, can be further developed through the study of metabolites and lipids of the brain. What are the prospects and potential application of your research, for example, in medical practice?. Looking good.

For example, we received preliminary data on changes in lipid composition of brain in schizophrenia. They suggest that we may detect diagnostically informative change using peripheral fluid. Schizophrenia and other mental disorders are very heterogeneous (a group consisting of different composition and properties of parts — approx. Ed.) and again, we here can help a comprehensive approach.

They can stratify (divide a large group into smaller — approx. Ed.) on the basis of medical criteria, the symptoms and you can, again, be classified using molecular mechanisms associated with the disease. This integrated approach will help to distinguish certain groups of patients with similar profile of molecular changes, which can be helped by finding a more optimal treatment.

It is unclear how clinical classification and molecular will be the same. In any case, classification by molecular markers that are associated with the mechanisms of the flow and the causes of disease, will be useful for the selection of methods of treatment and perhaps prevention. Early changes in human metabolism can be determined through complex changes, and it will tell about the risk of developing the disease.

We already know that many diseases accelerated the incorrect mode, a lack of movement, poor nutrition and other factors that can be avoided. Quantitative risk assessment will help each person better understand the health problems that it can receive, if you do not change life style. It is much more effective than a General promotion of a healthy lifestyle. How do you assess the prospects of Russian science.

Will there be a significant role?. The success of individual scientific schools on the global stage should not be a criterion of successful science. The success of domestic science is how positively it affects the lives of people in our country is the only meaningful criterion.

If for some reason the achievements of national science invisible on the world stage, but a positive effect on life in the country, it can be described as a success. The prospects of our science is definitely there. At least in biology, Biomedicine, agriculture, the research results can very significantly affect the development of the country. Can, but specific results depend on the researchers themselves — how will they promote their innovations and what conditions will be created for it.

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