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Professor Dan Macqueen on fish health and genetics

Understanding fish genomes and evolution, tackling viruses that infect salmon, and finding time for parenting and running.

Dan MacQueen at the Niagara Falls

Dan Macqueen is a Professor of Integrative Fish Genomics at the Roslin Institute. In this interview he tells MSc Science Communication student Lijie Tao about his work, his passion for genomic studies and why salmon has a special place in his heart.

Could you tell me about your work in a nutshell?

I work on the genomes of fish, i.e. the DNA code, especially salmon and related species. My work ranges from fundamental science on genome evolution, through to applied research on fish health and genetics, aiming to generate positive impacts for the aquaculture sector. I try to understand how genomes and genes relate to the biology of fish, especially for characteristics relevant to fish in aquaculture. I'm also very interested in the biology of the genome itself and exploring how this is linked to broader patterns in evolution.

Could you tell me about a real-world application of your work

My lab has been looking at viruses that infect salmon and cause disease on fish farms. My group works in collaboration with industry partners in Norway, where we use genomic tools to sequence the genome of viruses, which means that we read their complete DNA sequence.

We use that information to understand which strains of a virus infect the fish and how the virus is being transmitted across fish farms. This can help fish farmers and regulatory agencies to make decisions around how to manage diseases, keep healthier fish and minimise losses in aquaculture.

Why did you decide to become a scientist and what drew you to this particular field of research

I didn't want to be a scientist when I was young because I wasn’t very academic. What drove me to become a scientist was that I realised this was something I was good at. I did a degree in marine biology and had offers for various PhDs that were quite different, but I didn’t have a clear direction on which field I wanted to go into. The turning point was when I had an offer to do a PhD working on Atlantic salmon physiology at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, which I accepted and then never looked back - and I have lived in Scotland ever since! Every time I got into the lab and started doing proper scientific research, I became very excited. I think that was the time I knew I really wanted to be a scientist.

How has your field of research changed since those times?

When I finished my PhD in 2008 and transitioned increasingly into genomics, there were a lot of technology developments occurring. It has been a very exciting decade in our field. The rapid development of technology has really reduced the cost of DNA sequencing. We now use such tools for studying genomes very routinely, which is extremely powerful for our research  ̶  my career has benefited a lot from such developments. Back when I did my PhD, it was impossible to study even one whole salmon genome. Whereas now, my own PhD students are looking at 500 in a single study!

Why did you decide to work at the Roslin Institute and what do you like best about working here?

The main reason I decided to move to the Roslin Institute was that it has a stimulating and exciting work environment. I have many Roslin colleagues working in related areas, meaning I can talk to loads of great people about all sorts of science I find interesting. Roslin gives me numerous opportunities to collaborate with other groups and top experts in animal health and genetics using the methods my lab is using, or methods we are interested in using in the future, which also attracted me a lot.

A really nice thing is that the Roslin Institute is currently undergoing a big expansion in the area of aquaculture genetics and genomics. The University of Edinburgh, the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies and the Roslin Institute recognise that farming fish and shellfish has an enormous societal role to play in the next 50 years and beyond, and will help feed people worldwide while supporting diverse economies. They have invested significantly in this area and recruited me along with other colleagues. We are building a strong group working on fish and shellfish, aiming to make the production of these animals more efficient and sustainable by using genetics. It's an exciting time to work here!

What kind of challenges do you face as a scientist?

A major challenge is that it’s hard to achieve a balance between research, other academic duties and enjoying your family and hobbies. There are not enough hours in the day to fulfil the various duties and commitments that you have accumulated as an experienced principal investigator. It is not a ‘nine to five’ job, and you have to give a lot of your life to it. Getting enough funding to do world-class research is also competitive and can be a challenge. It is not easy to spend a lot of time working on funding applications when you have your other research and responsibilities. But there is never a dull moment.

Do you have any advice for students who want to go into this field of research or are starting a career as a scientist?

Yes, I do. My advice is to think about it very carefully from the start. You need to be more focused now on your future than ever before. Really understand what you want to do, where you are going, how to become more competitive and, perhaps most importantly, how to make yourself stand out in a crowd. Things are so competitive now in research and academia and you need to stand out.

For students who want to go into aquaculture research, I would say it's a field full of opportunities at the moment because it is growing so much for the reasons I mentioned earlier. I encourage students to keep going, work hard and join us at the Roslin Institute!

What would you be doing if you hadn't become a scientist?

I would like to have been a professional runner because I really enjoy running, especially competitive running, and would love to have given more time up to training. I would very happily have been a full-time parent, so that I could spend more time with my kids and family. Good whisky is a minor hobby of mine, so maybe I could have run a whisky distillery!

Related links

Dan’s lab website

Genome explains differences in wild and farmed salmon

Dr Tim Bean on oyster health

Dr Diego Robledo on disease resistance in fish