6 Jul 2015

OIST Welcomes Prof. Daniel Rokhsar

The Molecular Genetics Unit at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST) is under new management. The Unit is now led by Daniel Rokhsar, an adjunct and visiting professor from the University of California, Berkeley where he is a professor of Physics and Molecular and Cell Biology.  

Rokhsar started as a Professor of Physics at Berkeley in 1989. His fascination with genomics led to studying physics related biology problems and eventually the Human Genome Project. Since then, he has worked with collaborators involved in sequencing genomes from far flung branches of the evolutionary tree.

The Unit's primary focus is the understanding of key transitions in the evolutionary history of animals by comparing genomes of different species. Topics of interest in this field include some key evolutionary transitions among animals like the rise of the first multicellular organisms and physical features like the backbone. 

“Dan’s comfort with quantitative and analytical topics has enabled us to think about changes in genomic organization across evolutionary time in different ways. He is a particularly good fit for the interdisciplinary culture at OIST,” said Oleg Simakov, researcher in the Molecular Genetics Unit, with a background in the biological sciences.

In their most recent work, researchers in the Molecular Genetics Unit have worked on the hydra genome, the octopus genome and a variety of other animal genomes in collaboration with different institutions, paving the way for a more in depth study of genetic variation and the rise of novel features in animals.

Rokhsar had visited Okinawa several times as a lecturer in the OIST Winter Course “Evolution of Complex Systems” (OWECS). This led to a fruitful collaboration with Noriyuki Satoh, head of the Marine Genomics Unit. A collaboration between Rokhsar, Satoh and other leading research teams from Stanford and Berkeley compare genomes of certain hemichordates, the worm-like ancestors of all vertebrates.  

One of the byproduct of the earlier OWECS discussions exemplifies the type of collaborations Rokhsar and members of the Molecular Genetics Unit hope to nurture at OIST: In 2014, Rokhsar, Satoh and a collaborator from Toho University published a paper proposing that vertebrates, currently listed under a certain sub-category in the evolutionary tree, ought to be moved up a level to their own category. Such a revision to the phylogenetic tree of animals has not been done since the 19th century. Rokhsar’s arrival will pave the way for further fruitful collaborations between OIST and other institutions working in this field.

 

By Joykrit Mitra


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