Dr. Itamar Harel is an Assistant Professor of Genetics at Hebrew University’s Department of Genetics, part of the Silberman Institute of Life Sciences. The Harel Lab combines genetics, vertebrate physiology, and cell biology to uncover and characterize the molecular mechanisms that regulate aging in vertebrates.
For his postdoctoral research at Stanford University, Dr. Harel turned to the shortest-lived vertebrate, the African turquoise killifish, to study the aging process, and transformed it into a powerful genetic model. Many leading labs around the world now use the killifish for aging research as a result.
Please describe your current research, the focus of your lab, and talk about the practical implications of your research
Our lab tries to answer fundamental questions in biology, such as the molecular basis behind the remarkable diversity of lifespan between different animals; and what separates healthy aging from disease. We use cutting-edge techniques to develop a variety of disease models, including single-cell technologies, mass spectrometry, and genome-editing.
Ultimately, our research holds great promise for tackling one of the most fascinating questions in biology – how and why do we age?
Aging overall takes time, and therefore, the vast majority of aging studies are performed on non-vertebrate model systems (like yeast, worms and flies). These organisms are superb genetic models in the lab because they have a very short lifespan, a few months at best. But studying vertebrate models that live longer and resemble humans, such as zebrafish and mice, is time consuming and expensive.
All vertebrates go through a stereotypical aging process, such as loss of muscle, loss of fertility, etc., Therefore, we selected the turquoise killifish, a naturally short-lived vertebrate. The killifish lives for only 4-6 months, breeds quickly, and experiences a human-like aging process on a compressed timescale. Thus, making it an exciting model for experimental aging research.
To better understand aging, we visualize physiological processes by coupling them to a fluorescent reporter. These reporters emit light that we can see from outside the animal, allowing us to longitudinally observe age-related changes without killing the animals. As we are geneticists, we also “break” things to see how they work using genome engineering. This means that one or more DNA sequences are introduced or removed by artificial means. I was part of the genome-sequencing project at Stanford as a postdoc and spearheaded the development of genome-editing to manipulate killifish genes.
Using these approaches, we hope to identify novel pathways that can slow the aging process, and better understand how to delay the onset and progression of many age-related pathologies. We know this is possible because different animals have remarkable differences in their aging rates. Similarly, even in humans we see people that age slowly and compress disease onset until later years, while others die of age-related disease in their 60’s.
What do you enjoy most about your research and what you do?
Two things. The first is trying to resolve unexpected results – having a hypothesis and being dead wrong! This forces me to think about something I didn’t anticipate or know about.
Second, I love when I can see the spark in my students. Passion is not something you can teach, but rather something you can absorb, and I enjoy seeing their excitement, and really like it when they prove me wrong – it means I’ve trained them well.
What does it mean to you to be part of the Zuckerman Faculty Scholars Program?
When you have a community of excellence, it promotes more excellence by fostering collaboration, and when you bring people with different expertise together, it creates something stronger.
The Zuckerman program truly changed the course of my career – it provides something unique in Israel. The program provides resources, collaborative relationships, and wonderful friendships. It is most definitely a “Brain Gain” for Israel, but the program goes beyond bringing scientists back to Israel. The fact that we are treated as a community is the extra spice the Zuckerman program adds.
Where do you hope your research will have the greatest impact?
I study how organisms are born, mature, and eventually age. This is basic science. However, our research has great practical implications. For example, if scientists were to cure cancer tomorrow, life expectancy would not dramatically change as there are many age-related diseases that will step in. But perhaps, we can postpone the onset of all age-related pathologies together by manipulating aging itself, without needing to cure each separately. As we have already seen with vaccinations, nutrition, and antibiotics, maybe we can add even more healthy years to our lives by manipulating aging.