We are pleased to welcome Professor Russell Foster from the University of Oxford as the new Editor of Interface Focus. He works on the nature of sleep and the circadian rhythm, and we asked him a few questions about his research and the new role.
Tell us about your research
All physiology and behaviour shows a 24-hour rhythm. This is driven by an endogenous circadian network based upon a molecular feedback loop – the molecular clock – present in all cells of the body. These clocks need to function in synchrony with each other and with the environmental day. In mammals this is achieved via a master circadian pacemaker located in the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN) of the brain which is aligned/entrained to the environmental light-dark cycle by specialised photoreceptors within the eye. In turn the SCN coordinates the activity of the entire circadian system. If this entrainment pathway is disrupted at any point, then clocks in different tissues can become uncoupled. This in turn results in a state of internal desynchrony of the 24-hour circadian network.
The sleep-wake cycle is the most familiar 24-hour cycle, but its regulation involves more than the SCN. Indeed, sleep is a highly complex state. It arises from an interaction between multiple brain regions, neurotransmitter pathways, and hormones, none of which are exclusive to the generation of sleep. This complexity makes sleep very vulnerable to disruption. As a result, small changes in brain function arising from disease can have a big impact upon sleep. Abnormal sleep will in turn have a major impact upon health.
The overall aim of my research team is to provide a greater understanding of the importance of sleep and circadian rhythms across all sectors of society to drive policy and health guidelines forward.
What prompted you to work in this field?
As an undergraduate I was fascinated by how light was detected and then used to regulate 24-hour biology. My early studies were on the pineal and other extraretinal photoreceptors of fish, amphibians, reptiles, and birds. This comparative approach on unusual photoreceptors very much informed my later work on mammals, and the discovery of an entirely new photoreceptor system within the mammalian eye.
Until the late 1990s it seemed inconceivable that there could be an unrecognised photoreceptor within the eye. One hundred and fifty years of research had explained how we see. Light is detected by rods & cones and their graded potentials are assembled into a crude image by the inner retina, followed by advanced visual processing in the brain. This representation of the eye left no room for another photoreceptor. However, research from my group overturned this dogma. By studying how circadian rhythms and sleep are regulated by the dawn/dusk cycle we showed that there exists a “3rd class” of photoreceptor within the mammalian eye that utilises the blue light sensitive photopigment melanopsin.
What has been the biggest influence on your career?
There have been several key individuals who have guided and encouraged me, particularly Brian Follett and Mike Menaker. I have been immensely lucky to have terrific colleagues with whom I have been privileged to work. However, I think the key influence on my career has been learning how to deal with rejection!
When I first proposed that the eye contains an unrecognised photoreceptor, the hostility from the vision community was extraordinary. Papers and grants were rejected in profusion. One referee accused me of making the data up. During a scientific talk, a member of the audience stood, locked eyes, shouted an expletive, and walked out. All this drove me to devise better experiments and to adopt new methodological approaches to overwhelm the critics. I would say the combination of a “thick skin”, dogged determination, and the focus of doing the very best science you can through the use of a broad range of methodologies have all combined to influence my career!
What are the challenges still remaining in your field?
We are at a very exciting time in circadian rhythms and sleep research. We are really beginning to understand the fundamental biology of the field, and currently I see that there are two key challenges that need to be addressed:
1) The need to educate and provide the tools for the clinical community to understand the importance of this area of biomedicine, and allow them to apply such knowledge with appropriate diagnostic tools and therapeutic interventions. Without accurate diagnostics there can be no evidence-based interventions.
2) The need to establish advanced and long-term sleep and circadian phenotyping in multiple groups/cohorts. This approach would be critical in assessing the impact of SCRD on educational outcomes, health, and the vulnerability to disease. In addition, such studies would be able to define the impact of societal factors on SCRD ranging from shift-work, jet-lag, and work-related stress.
What attracted you to the role as the Editor of Interface Focus?
I feel passionately that the future of scientific advancement and discovery will be at the interface between different scientific disciplines. Interface Focus is a truly cross-disciplinary publication that considers research at the interface between the physical and life sciences. I really like the fact that each issue is devoted to a specific subject area that consists of high-quality articles that consider cross-disciplinary research. There are very few other journals that have these aims, and no other journals that deliver such a high-quality publication.
How do you see the journal developing during your time as the Editor?
Following Denis Noble as the Editor is a somewhat daunting task. Denis has done a truly superb job at establishing the journal and promoting its aims. My initial thoughts in developing the journal would be to engage more widely and extend the reach of the journal. I would hope that we could organise open debates or discussions around some of the themes that would be either for a general audience, or targeted groups such as clinicians, the business community, venture capitalists, government, or educators.
Interface Focus publishes themed issues covering cross-disciplinary research at the interface between the physical and life sciences. Keep up to date with new content by signing up for article alerts, or browse the latest issues on the journal website.