With one foot in evolutionary genomics and the other in bioinformatics, Anna-Sophie Fiston-Lavier of theMontpellier Institute of Evolutionary Sciences (Isem) scans genomes in search of repeated elements capable of influencing species adaptation. She promotes bioinformatics as a scientific discipline in its own right.
In the era of high-throughput sequencing, evolutionary genomics must be able to process the masses of data produced from decoded genomes. Anna-Sophie Fiston-Lavier is an accomplished scientist, wearing both her genomic and bioinformatics hats. The teacher-researcher at theInstitute of Evolutionary Sciences of Montpellier (Isem) combines experimental and computational approaches to understand how repeated elements of genomes influence evolutionary processes such as species adaptation.
" In my research work, I like to be at the beginning and end of the chain: collecting samples, thinking about the sequencing protocol, and then interpreting the analyses with possibly the algorithms and computational tools I develop." The only biologist in UM's computer science teaching department, she defends the importance of her specialty in extracting relevant information from the many non-homogenous datasets collected. " The bioinformatician is not just a programmer who fixes printers and presses buttons... Above all, he or she must translate the biological question, understand the theories behind existing tools, and have the expertise and critical distance to improve them if necessary."
The world of transposable elements
A pioneer, Anna-Sophie Fiston-Lavier took the first master's degree in bioinformatics at Paris-Diderot in 2000. As a young biology student, she remembers being stunned by the first class in front of a black screen with green characters: " It was The Matrix, and I realized that it was up to us students to program and develop biological data analysis software! A training that opens to this scientific baccalaureate the access to a thesis at theInstitut Jaques Monod where she dives into the world of transposable elements(TE). Her research - a comparison of Drosophila genomes - supports the hypothesis of the impact of an element called the "P element" on the evolution of genomes.
Spotted by a Stanford professor invited to a seminar in France, she was offered a post-doctorate at the Californian university. While high-throughput sequencing techniques were being rapidly perfected, the young French researcher was a pioneer in the development of tools for detecting DNA in sequencing data. In particular, with the development of T-lex, " the big beast that can detect and analyze TEs in sequencing data ". A reference to T-rex of course, but also to Solexa, one of the first sequencing companies.
Her work is as effective as her inspiration. By comparing ancestral Drosophila from East Africa to current American and European populations, Anna-Sophie Fiston-Lavier has helped to highlight the particular dynamics of ETs and their impact on adaptation processes. Some TEs seem to act on the regulation of genes coding for odorant receptors, decisive traits for the adaptation of the species. Since then, she continues to be interested in sequencing technologies that are also evolving and allow a better understanding of adaptation processes, especially in insects. For example, she contributed to the study of the genome of the Belgica Antarctica midge, the only insect living in Antarctica.
"Engaging students in research."
After five years at the heart of Stanford's international emulation, the young researcher returned to France for family reasons, " a somewhat difficult time when I had to readapt to the French system . Her recruitment at the UM in 2013 allowed her to discover the Montpellier region: " for a Parisian like me, it reminds me a bit of California! Attached to the computer science department, she developed a taste for educational innovation by holding the position of head of the bioinformatics master's degree for six years. "In addition to transmitting knowledge, teaching pushed me to find pedagogical methods to involve students in research," explains the woman who leads several pedagogical innovation projects such as the Bioinformatics Learning Lab, the Montpellier Omics days and bootcamps, under the Anglo-Saxon influence of project-based teaching.
Anna-Sophie Fiston-Lavier draws her energy to work with young people from her own experience and career. As is often the case, the researcher recounts the importance of the " beautiful encounters" that have marked her career, but also outlines other more disastrous ones, such as at the Jehan de Chelles high school, where she escaped a reorientation based on prejudice. " For spurious reasons, the high school administration closed the scientific path to me. Fortunately, with the firm support of my mother, I managed to change schools and pass my scientific baccalaureate with flying colors.
President of the French Bioinformatics Society
An energy that she does not hesitate to put at the service of her other battle horse: the recognition of bioinformatics. " Research is shooting itself in the foot by not recognizing the value of bioinformaticians; they are reduced to a precarious position with fixed-term contracts, which prevents any capitalization of their knowledge. Her commitment has earned her election as president of the French Bioinformatics Society in 2021. In recent years, the teacher-researcher is once again devoting more time to her research, thanks in particular to a CNRS MITI grant obtained in 2019 and to her appointment as a junior member of theInstitutUniversitaire de France in 2021.