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Meet Our Speakers: Fikadu Tafesse

March 21, 2023
by Jan Parolek

Dr. Fikadu G. Tafesse, an Associate Professor of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, is scheduled to present his work, "The Multifaceted Roles of Lipids in Bacterial and Viral Infections," at YSM on March 28, 2023. His lab focuses on understanding how pathogens evade host immune systems to establish infections and how they interact with their hosts. Dr. Tafesse's research currently examines pathogens such as M. tuberculosis, HIV, Zika virus, and SARS-CoV-2. As an expert in lipid biology, specifically sphingolipids, Dr. Tafesse's research projects often explore how pathogens alters the host lipids pathways during infection. Jan Parolek, a postdoctoral researcher in Chris Burd's lab, had the opportunity to discuss various scientific and general topics with Dr. Tafesse before his visit to Yale.

How do you see the field of sphingolipid biology nowadays compared to 20 years ago?

Two decades ago, our understanding of sphingolipid biosynthesis was limited, as we didn't know which enzymes were responsible for this process. Sphingomyelin synthases had not yet been cloned, and the regulation of sphingolipid biosynthesis was unclear. Today, we have a much deeper understanding of these processes, enabling us to study sphingolipid biology and its role in diseases.

During my PhD project, I collaborated with colleagues to characterize the recently discovered sphingomyelin synthases 1 and 2. We investigated the location of their enzymatic active sites and their subcellular localization. It was a rewarding experience to be involved in this research from its early stages.

What do you think are the biggest limitations and hardships sphingolipid biology research faces nowadays?

Mass spectrometry has greatly improved our ability to analyze lipids in lipid biology. However, manipulating lipids within cells remains a significant challenge. Since lipids are end-products of biosynthetic pathways and are not template-encoded like proteins, genetic approaches only reveal part of the story. Labeling lipids without altering their function is currently not possible, limiting our ability to specifically analyze a given lipid at a specific time. Nevertheless, progress has been made in this area with the introduction of multi-functional lipids by different investigators, including the lab of Carsten Schulz.

What is the future direction of research in your lab?

The future direction of my lab involves understanding how pathogens exploit host lipids during viral or bacterial infections. We essentially use viruses and bacteria as tools to study lipid biology. We've found that pathogens significantly reprogram lipid pathways during infection, but we haven't yet identified the mechanism behind this. Our goal is to determine the mechanistic bases how specific viruses hijack lipid metabolic pathways.

Did someone inspire you to become a scientist when you were younger, perhaps a science teacher or a TV celebrity?

As a child, I initially wanted to be a farmer, and for that I went on and earned a bachelor's degree in plant sciences. My interests began to shift during my postgraduate studies in horticulture when I experimented with genetically modified plants. This experience sparked my fascination with biology, and I became increasingly interested in medical science. I made the transition from plant sciences to biomedical research during my PhD studies.

Which award is the most precious to you?

All awards are special to me, but if I had to pick one, the Silver Excellence and Innovation Award from OHSU, recognizing our work on emerging and re-emerging pathogens, is especially meaningful to me because it acknowledges the collective achievements of my lab members and me.

Do you have any favorite free-time activities?

Most of the time, I enjoy spending time with my family. I also like reading biographies and spending time outdoors, away from the city.

Do you have any experience with predatory journals?

Predatory publishing practices are a huge problem. These practices can be especially detrimental for trainees and postdocs, as job positions are often awarded to applicants with journal publications that have high impact factors. In science, there should be a balance between conducting good science and pursuing high impact factors. However, hiring mechanisms that only take high impact factors into account can be detrimental to the quality of science publishing. It is like a virus that destroys the quality of science publishing.

Submitted by C. Patrick Lusk on March 21, 2023