Along the shore of Seattle's Lake Washington, hints of mist drift across the water as the early morning sun warms the surface. Katie Peichel, her dog Rufus by her side, casts fish traps tethered to 20-foot ropes into the cold, shallow water. Her intended trophies: dozens of inch-long threespine stickleback fish. The spiny specimens don't look like much, but they have put Peichel at the forefront of a new generation of genetic researchers.
Her lab at the Hutchinson Center has established the stickleback as a new model for studying complex genetic traits. By examining multifaceted traits in the fish, such as body type and behavior, Peichel is shedding light on the genetic networks at play in other complex traits, such as cancer and other common human diseases.
Widely studied by behaviorists and evolutionary biologists, the stickleback has evolved great diversity in body type, behavior and life history in a relatively short time. While conducting postdoctoral research with Dr. David Kingsley at Stanford University, Peichel realized these traits made the fish ideal for genetic research. Although no one before had used the stickleback for genetics, Peichel forged ahead undeterred with the energy and focus that also drives her to spend 12-hour days in the lab.
"Complex traits result from a combination of many genetic factors as well as environmental factors," she said. "By using sticklebacks as a model organism in the laboratory, we can begin to understand the genetic and environmental components of these traits, and use what we learn in the fish to determine how to study similar traits in humans. Our work has important implications for the study of human diseases, most of which are complex traits."
In the short time she has focused on sticklebacks, Peichel has created the first detailed map of the fish's genome, or genetic blueprint, and developed new insight into sex determination. Her discoveries are in the realm of the innovative achievements by other scientists she has long admired, including many of her Hutchinson Center colleagues.
"The very best science is the science that 95 percent of people say, 'That's crazy, that's never going to work,'" she said. "It's the people who are willing to take chances and say, 'This is a great idea and I'm going to go for it.' Those are the people who make the biggest breakthroughs."