Dr Xavier Donadeu on stem cells and reproduction
Research for more efficient livestock production, challenges of research funding and how he became a scientist.
In this interview, Science Communication Intern Maggie Szymanska talked with Dr Xavier Donadeu about his work in stem cells and reproductive biology, which has the potential of making livestock production more efficient.
Could you describe your work in a nutshell?
My research group work in two main areas. One is stem cells – we are currently interested in understanding how the foetal environment affects stem cells. For instance, what prompts our stem cells to “define” how to behave as an adult while we are still a foetus? This is called developmental programming and we’re investigating it in pigs, which can gives insights into how it works in people. We’re currently working specifically in the development of muscle and fat, which is relevant to the animal meat industry.
The other area we have worked on for quite a long time is farm animal reproduction. In that context we are currently exploring the potential of microRNAs as a diagnostic tool for the vet industry, for instance to diagnose the reproductive state of an animal and to predict how productive and healthy the animal will be in the future.
What are the applications of your work?
Our areas of work have the potential of making livestock production more efficient and increase the future sustainability of the animal food industry.
Our work on microRNAs has potential to improve the reproductive efficiency of livestock, and identify markers that could be used to select for the best animals.
Our work on stem cells has the potential to find gene targets that can be used to increase meat production, which would obviously be extremely beneficial for the meat industry.
How did you become interested in this field of research?
I always found it really fascinating why our complex organs develop from a single cell, and the biological mechanisms that make cells develop a certain function and behave in a certain way, and how our past experiences affect that. For example, what are the mechanisms that make cells become muscle or become fat? Not all cell programming goes well and when the cell takes the wrong path there will be a problem. I think this is very interesting!
Do you have a favourite project from your time at the Institute?
I would say that doing research by itself is exciting and all projects are fun to be involved in! Perhaps one of the most exciting times here was when induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) were first produced – these cells can be generated directly from adult cells and could one day be used in the area of regenerative medicine.
We received funding to work on these cells and were one of the first groups to produce horse iPS cells. We also showed that the cells could be differentiated into different cell lineages with potential to become treatments for animals or to be used as models to understand disease in vitro.
I think it was a very exciting project because it nicely complemented the work other researchers were doing in other species, and still has enormous potential for improving the lives of animals to this day.
What challenges have you experienced in science?
The biggest challenge we all have is not being able to conduct all the research we’d like due to lack of funding. There is also a challenge when working with industry, which has nowadays become very important. How to communicate with them? How to engage industry to listen to us and to take up our ideas? How to bring academy and industry together?
Why did you decide to become a scientist?
I worked as a vet for a while and, as I wondered why those animals showed symptoms of diseases and what caused them, I realised that what I really wanted was to understand the biology behind it, instead of giving them drugs to fight diseases without exactly knowing why. That’s how I decided to become a scientist!
If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be?
As a child, I wanted to work in Africa, treating animals or trying to save endangered species. If I weren’t a scientist maybe I would be doing that. In any case, it is important to feel that you are doing something useful and, if possible, something that does not keep you the whole time inside an office!
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