CERAD Faces: Peter Aleström

Tell us about yourself

My background is from early days molecular biology at Uppsala University and the very first generation DNA sequencing. We did the 35000 base pairs long adenovirus genome around 1980 as compared to the 3 billion bp human genome 20 years later. I came as a postdoc to University of Oslo in 1982 and started up my first zebrafish facility as a young professor in biochemistry at NLH (now NMBU) in Ås 5 years later. Since then I have been in charge of the Norwegian Zebrafish Platform (2007-2012) and am now active member of the European zebrafish laboratory network EUFishBioMed and Partner in CERAD.

How are you connected to CERAD?

My connection to CERAD began with Brit Salbu making contact about introducing the zebrafish as a model organism for radiation biology studies plans in the CERAD application. Since then we have proven zebrafish to be sensitive for low dose gamma radiation exposures by the Co-60 source at the CERAD FIGARO facility.  From the start in 2013 I have played a central role in Research Area 3 on biological effect studies. An exciting new experience, which have laid the ground for a very interesting study on zebrafish epigenetics and transgenerational effects.

You get a year to research abroad. Where would you go and why?

In 2001 I did my first sabbatical (Purdue University, IN) working on zebrafish embryonic stem cells for achievement of genome editing in zebrafish (before CRISPR revolutionized the editing world). It was a great experience. Now, after 15 more years of experience from zebrafish research I wish to write a book to tell the story about how the tiny aquarium fish became the second most used laboratory animal model in the world. To get inspiration and be able to translate advanced research into a popular science language to share the fantastic zebrafish story with biology teachers, school pupils and others interested in science and technology around the world, I plan to visit colleagues and laboratories that have had significant impact on this development.

What do you prefer: to teach or to perform research?

Gradually I do have developed preferences towards a 50-50 score for research versus teaching. Not the least since 2015 when I and my colleague Charles Press were awarded a teaching project grant from Olav Thon Foundation. It is really inspiring, we call the project “e-ZFbook” and, in close collaboration with the Learning Center at NMBU, we now develop an App to navigate among our new teaching products, all with focus on various aspects of the zebrafish model.  The song “Zebrafish blues” (find a link at zebrafish.no) introduces the idea in a popular way. We also plan to produce a CERAD dedicated video within the e-ZFbook concept.

Invite three science heroes for dinner – who would you chose?

Among a long list of eminent scientists I would highlight three as guests in an imaginary dinner. They have not only made excellent contributions in bioscience, but are also visionary and have contributed far outside their own research. Sidney Brenner from South Africa and Oxford, UK comes from early days of molecular biology and has served as a symbol in the early genomics era. Leonard Zon from Children’s Hospital in Boston represents zebrafish model research, has successfully advocated “from fish tank to bedside”, is highly profiled with zebrafish cancer models and translation research into the clinic. Finally Emanuelle Charpentier from Pasteur Institute and Umeå University has turned basic research on the bacterial immune defense system CRISPR/Cas9 into a method for genome editing with implications in many areas including gene and cancer therapy. A very cool trio.

Which technical term do you love?

Basic research, meaning basic research and not just variants of applied research using methods established in basic research. In several aspects art and science share qualities.

Which technical term do you hate?

The many reports in media referring to “research and researchers”, in contexts with superficial statistics suggesting (even worse “concluding”) various correlations to health etc. is an offence to scientists devoting their lives to research for gradually learning how nature and societies function.

How do you think the system of publication points for scientific publishing should be done?

The question on merit systems for scientific production is a tricky one. Ideally the system should merit fewer publications with higher real impact (not only “impact factor”). With todays opportunistic science politics it is difficult to keep focus on one subject area long enough (>>3 years) to achieve a deeper understanding. The political wish to earmark and measure research for short-term solving defined problems prevent the development of novel and original ideas. Such typically pop up unexpectedly when new basic knowledge suddenly enters a relevant context.

Which paradigm shifting or scientific discovery you wish you were a part of? (in the past or the future)

We are working in CERAD on a paradigm shift that recently has got much focus – hereditary effects of epigenetic changes. Epigenetic means control of gene expression patterns without changes (mutations) in the genetic code of DNA. Further, changes in the epigenetic control can be induced and lead to disease and other functional effects (on the phenotype). Induced epigenetic changes can be transferred to next generations, but the functional effects of such heritage is not well understood. The CERAD NMBU-Vet group now aims at drawing the contours of an “epigenetic landscape” describing heritable epigenetic changes induced by low dose radiation exposures of zebrafish.

Zebrafish group at NMBU-Vet

Zebrafish group at NMBU-Vet

Peter Alestrøm

Published 26. January 2017 - 12:37 - Updated 23. May 2017 - 19:10