Julia Horsfield

Investigating how genetics can help solve human health problems.

Associate Professor Julia Horsfield is passionate about investigating how genetics can help solve human health problems.

Dr Horsfield is the Principal Investigator of the Chromosome Structure and Development Group at the Department of Pathology, University of Otago, and the Director of Genetics Otago, a University research centre.

Otago Medical Research Foundation funding from the Otago Community Trust has supported her in a collaborative project with the Dental School, looking at jaw and face abnormalities.

Proper formation of the face depends on a combination of heritable factors, but exposure to environmental stressors like alcohol or tobacco toxins during embryo development also have an effect.

Dr Horsfield is particularly interested in understanding more about how the environment and genetics intersect, and what effect that has on development. Now she and her team have been able to show just how damaging an environmental stressor can be to that development.

The study tracked how oxidative stress not only produced acute developmental facial abnormalities in zebrafish, but also reduced their breeding potential as adults.

Zebrafish may not appear to have much in common with humans, but they have the same kinds of cells and genes as we do. Because they grow from a single cell to a whole fish in only a few days, they are a great model for studying early embryo development.  The researchers can also use fluorescent markers to easily track cranial and facial gene expression.

"Showing the damaging effects of exposure to oxidants in an animal model has helped us to understand much more about human genetics, and just how important early life environment is to development. Our research also provides hope that there may one day be potential clinical solutions using antioxidant rescue in children at risk."

"The funding we get from the Foundation helps us with the fundamental understanding of how genetics and the environment interact. That solid foundation brings basic biologists and clinicians together, which is very important to progress research so that one day genetic information is linked to therapeutics in clinical practise."

"It also helps foster ideas and enthusiasm alongside world-class knowledge and skills for our students – I often remind my students research takes time, and the little insight we have found in the laboratory now may turn out to be a game changer later.  It's about having faith."