Junior Faculty Awardee Profile: Andres Bendesky, MD, PhD
Jennifer Leach, Assistant Director for Faculty Advancement, recently sat down with Andres Bendesky, Assistant Professor of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology, PI at Columbia's Zuckerman Institute, and 2018 Junior Faculty Grant recipient, to talk about his work.
Can you tell me a little about yourself and your background?
I grew up in Mexico City, where I completed a seven-year combined undergrad/MD program. I came to Rockefeller University to do a PhD, where I studied the genetics and neurobiology of how different nematode worms behave differently, how they make decisions. Some of them are more exploratory. They will abandon an area with resources sooner than other strains that exploit resources more thoroughly before abandoning an area. I found the genes mediating the differences between these nematode worms and explored how those acted in the nervous system.
When I finished, I wanted to apply some of that knowledge and explore more behaviors relevant to humans, so I moved to a mammalian system. I started studying rodents, but instead of using the standard laboratory mice, I wanted to study, something with more relevance to nature and how behavior evolves. I went to Harvard to do postdoctoral work on a different species of mice. One of them is strictly monogamous; the other one is promiscuous. It’s been known for a long time that there are differences in the parental behavior of monogamous species. The father tends to display much more parental care than in promiscuous species. So I tested that in this species and that seems to be true as well. The monogamous fathers were very devoted fathers, and in the promiscuous species, the fathers didn’t do anything for their babies. I went on to cross the species through a genetic analysis to find the genes mediating the differences in paternal behavior and also in maternal behavior, because the mothers were also different.
And doing that, I identified 12 parts of the genome that explain those differences, and for one of them I found the specific gene and how it affected the hypothalamus. Since I came here to Columbia, I’ve been following that work on the parental behavior from both a genetics and a neurobiology perspective. We have also expanded to studying aggression, first in chickens, in which we are going to try to identify a genetic basis of their aggression in chickens bred for fighting for hundreds to thousands of years. We’re doing something similar in Siamese betta fish that have been bred for fighting for hundreds of years. We have them here in the lab, and we compare the genomes of wild fish to those bred for fighting and we’re studying the neural circuitry of their aggression to understand how they become so aggressive.
"Since I came here to Columbia, I’ve been following that work on the parental behavior from both a genetics and a neurobiology perspective. We have also expanded to studying aggression, first in chickens, in which we are going to try to identify a genetic basis of their aggression in chickens bred for fighting for hundreds to thousands of years."
That is fascinating. With all of this work that you’re doing, is there an eventual application for humans, or is it to learn to understand the structures of the brain and how they work?
I think maybe 90% of the genes in humans are also present in other mammals. The structure of our brains is highly similar to that of rodents. We all have a cortex, a hypothalamus, a hippocampus and a cerebellum, and many of the same neurotransmitters. What we are finding out for mice likely can likely have some implications for humans. We don’t do the human work here. I think it’s possible that some of the principles that we find in these animals will have applications for humans—social behaviors, aggression, parental behaviors, or others. It may not be identical, but it might be something related or parallel or in a similar part of the brain.
Is there sort of a broader problem or challenge that you hope to address with your work?
There are many challenges of studying behavior in humans. For obvious reasons, we can’t do many experiments or control their environment or control their genes to dissect the basis of human behavior, such as why people behave differently from each other, why some have psychiatric diseases and some don’t. But for a long time, it’s been clear that there’s some kind of genetic contributions to these variations in behavior in humans, but identifying specific genes or mechanisms in humans is very challenging, so our hope is that by solving this in simpler animals, we can help to understand ourselves better. We also find it fascinating to study how this behavior evolved across species and some of those findings may have implications for humans. To study the genetics of height or aggression or sleep patterns, you require hundreds of thousands of people to find any signals. With some of these species, we can control their environment better and we can do experiments to confirm the findings or study the mechanisms involved.
What were your first inklings in childhood that you would be interested in this type of work?
I guess I was always interested in the differences between people - why some people are more interested in doing one thing or another, why people differ in their abilities for musical talent, or why people like some food and some don’t, or some people are better at sports than others. And I was very interested in learning the nature of those differences. Clearly, there is a big environmental, cultural or educational component to many behaviors in humans. From studies in twins and other family studies in humans, we know that there is an interplay between genes and the environment. We study how the environment affects the behaviors here in our lab animals. We focus a lot on the genetics because it’s something we can study more carefully. And the environmental differences in humans are even more challenging to study. Just by the way the nature of the brain has evolved to be very adaptable and plastic and responds differently in different conditions, it’s challenging to study animal behavior. But the genetics is something that is constant, and there’s a lot of genetic theory and a lot of basic understanding that we can make a larger impact at that level.
How will winning the Provost’s Award change the shape of your research?
As you know, in order to get funding for direction you haven’t explored, it’s almost necessary to have some sort of preliminary data. The government or private foundations may be less willing to take risks and to fund things if you have no data. This award will be helpful to set this preliminary data for the project on aggression in chickens, to get the samples and begin to sequence them. Clearly, the project will involve more money than this grant, but it would be very hard to get additional funding without it.
Tell me a little about your approach to teaching.
I teach a course on DNA sequencing technologies, both for undergrads and for graduate students. I am now teaching Intro Bio to freshmen. My approach is to encourage students to do a lot of thinking and reasoning rather than memorizing. It’s not learning specific pieces of knowledge, but applying them to solve problems, both practical problems or theoretical ones. If students have a picture in their minds of how things work, that will help them.
Generally speaking, what’s your favorite part of your job?
I think the thrill of discovery, and doing this with a team that is like a family. We talk through things and find solutions together. Solving problems and discovering new things is what keeps me going.
What’s most challenging?
The biggest challenge is dealing with rejection, especially in grant applications, where only 5-10% are funded. It’s hard to get used to that. I just keep going. I focus on learning from the experience and I ask for feedback from other colleagues.
How do you spend your free time?
I have two young children, aged six and three, so I don’t have a lot of free time. We do a lot of cooking and going to museums or concerts. That’s what I like about New York. There are so many opportunities to be outdoors.
Do you have any books that you’d recommend—whether scientific or general interest?
The books that really inspired me to be a scientist are books by Peter Medawar, who was a British scientist who got a Nobel Prize in immunology. He has a book called Advice to a Young Scientist and Santiago Ramon y Cajal has a version of that called Advice to a Young investigator.
Are there any collaborations that you envision in the future?
We already have collaborations with Darcy Kelley in Biology; we’re studying the evolution of frog song; it’s another project that we’re doing jointly with her. We are examining how different species of frogs evolve both with the songs they produce and the females’ preference for songs of their own species. Evolution synchronizes these two behaviors— the production and the preference. It’s something we’re studying right now, both the genetic and the neurobiological level. And I guess in the future, if somebody’s an expert in chickens…
And I have to ask about the dog…
Julio’s been with me since grad school. He’s been to three labs. Rockefeller for four years, then Harvard for five, and now he’s here. He has gone to many lab meetings.
To learn more about Dr. Bendesky's work, visit his lab's website or email him directly.