Dr. Jonathan Rast is currently a senior scientist at Emory University studying immune development in lamprey and sea urchin models. Jonathan completed doctorate studies at the University of South Florida studying the evolution of immunoglobulin genes and T cell receptors using genomics in sharks. This led to his subsequent post-doctoral work at the California Institute of Technology studying gene regulatory networks controlling development using sea urchins. Jonathan’s research interests regarding the development of immune gene networks with sea urchins continued in Toronto as a Principal Investigator at the Sunnybrook Research Institute. Recently, we had the opportunity to speak with Jonathan to learn about his evolving research interests and the importance of deep-sea models in immune development research.

For many of us, the closest encounters we can entertain with many marine organisms is through virtual or distant means. Viewing shark documentaries on Discovery Channel, watching movies depicting predatory sharks and lampreys, or carefully avoiding sea urchins at the beach are all common examples. An additional consideration unbeknownst to many individuals is that careful study of these unique deep sea organisms can provide insightful information regarding the origins and development of the vertebrate immune system. We had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Rast about his research experiences with such organisms and the value of utilizing diverse models in immunology research.


From Sharks to Sea Urchins to Lampreys

Jonathan describes his journey from graduate school to the present day as unconventional. With a start in the marine sciences, his Master’s degree focused on aquatic organisms including molluscs. Desiring to pursue molecular biology and evolution research, a significant opportunity came in the form of a poster Jonathan saw highlighting a 10-week marine systems molecular biology course on Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles in California. The experiences gained during this unique course led to doctorate studies with Dr. Gary Litman at the University of South Florida, where he studied the evolution of immunoglobulin genes and T cell receptors using genomics in sharks. During this time, it became increasingly evident that significant immune differences were present between vertebrates and invertebrates.

“It became clear we were hitting a wall. The wall was you could find all these adaptive immune genes in jawed vertebrates, as far away from us as sharks, but you could not find anything beyond that. So if you look at lampreys, jawless vertebrates, those things were just absent.”

Following doctorate studies, he completed his post-doctoral work pertaining to the study of gene regulatory networks controlling development using sea urchins as a model with Dr. Eric Davidson at the California Institute of Technology. Jonathan’s research interests regarding the development of immune gene networks with sea urchins continued in Toronto, Canada as a Principal Investigator at the Sunnybrook Research Institute. During this time, the significant discovery of variable lymphocyte receptors (VLRs) in lampreys opened up a new avenue for exploration in the field of adaptive immunity in vertebrates. Currently, Jonathan is a senior scientist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia working with Dr. Max Cooper to study the development and evolution of the immune system in lampreys.

The Importance of Unconventional

With mice being a broadly used animal model in immunology research, I asked Jonathan about the importance of investigating unique unconventional models. Jonathan notes that models such as sea urchins are closely related to vertebrates and thus are an important phylogenetic location to look for the evolution of systems. He notes that it is important to consider that every animal has an immune system and that the immune system has historically and inherently been difficult to visualize.

“Immunity has always been so closely tied to medicine and unlike developmental biology and physiology, until fairly recently there was never a huge effort to look at a lot of different organisms because all the questions were human-oriented. It was difficult to do since the immune system is relatively invisible compared to other systems, such as a developing limb.”

Invertebrate systems have played a significant role in understanding the development of the vertebrate immune system, such as the role of Drosophila in the discovery of Toll-like receptors (TLRs). Jonathan highlights that invertebrate systems, such as sea urchins, act as a convenient model to study the evolutionary aspect of the immune system and that these models can serve as important tools for science in general.

Advice for Future Researchers

Towards the end of the interview, I asked Jonathan for any advice he has for future students and researchers who are considering studying unique models in developmental and immunological research. He explains that it is possible to explore various models in immunology research and that diverse and varied alternatives are present.

“For instance, there are a lot of people that work with fish and sometimes disease in aqua culture can fund fish work, but you can be interested in the evolution of the immune system at the same time. You can also look at the evolution of the immune system in mammals so that it is relevant to humans, while at the same time it is an evolution question.”

Jonathan notes that while science is by no means an easy process, the most important aspect is to barrel forward and study the concepts that interest you.

“The main thing is to focus on what you think is important and keep doing it no matter what anyone says, and you might go down the tube, but a lot of the time if you know in your own head it’s an important thing, then maybe that is true.”

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Tijana Despot

Tijana is a MSc student in the Department of Immunology at the University of Toronto under the supervision of Dr. Thierry Mallevaey. Her research focusses on the influence of diverse gut microbiota compositions on invariant natural killer T cell function.

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