Scientist at Work: A Conversation with Julius Barsi

Molecular biologist Julius Christopher Barsi joined the BIOS faculty in July 2019. His research uses marine animals, such as sea urchins, as model organisms to decipher the mechanism by which genes are controlled. Studying these organisms can help answer fundamental biological questions relevant to human health, such as why mutations outside of genes often lead to cancer.

Julius Christopher Barsi grew up in a family of academics, engineers, and artists, including grandparents who owned an estate farm in Kona, Hawaii. Being surrounded by such natural wild beauty, he knew from an early age that he wanted to become a biologist. By his teenage years he was fascinated by a diverse array of topics, including nuclear physics and genetics. Realizing the importance that the discovery of the double helix (the twisted-ladder structure of a DNA molecule) held for the field of life sciences, he decided to dedicate his academic career to the pursuit of knowledge in this area. 

Barsi, 42, who joined the BIOS staff in July, spent several years in Patagonia where he received his undergraduate degree in biology from the Argentine National University. He has a PhD in molecular biology from the University of Texas in Austin where he specialized in mammalian development. Prior to joining BIOS, Barsi was located at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, California where, as a senior fellow, he investigated genetic circuits that govern embryonic development.

What interested you about this position at BIOS?
While genomic sequencing was once an extraordinarily expensive enterprise, it has now become relatively affordable and is utilized across a variety of research. Up until very recently, any scientist who wanted to investigate genetics was limited to a few traditional model organisms, such as mice, frogs, fruit flies, and zebra fish. Today, for the first time in the history of the life sciences, researchers can obtain the genetic information of an animal—any animal—provided they have the skills and tools to do so. 

The ocean is a source of a wide variety of potential model organisms that we can use to study and answer fundamental biological questions relevant to human health, such as why mutations outside of genes often lead to cancer, or what gives stem cells their unique ability to develop into more specialized cells. BIOS is unique with respect to its proximity to the ocean, its laboratory and research facilities, and its diverse group of expert scientists in a variety of fields. To say that I’m excited to be here would be an understatement!

What research questions are you exploring?
If all cells from an individual animal contain the same DNA, and the simplest of animals contain multiple cell types, how does such complexity arise from a single cell? The answer, in general terms, is differential gene expression. The overarching theme of all of my studies is to explain how differential gene expression is directed according to instructions encoded within the genome. During the early 1960s, scientists discovered how to read certain parts of the genome and derive the amino acid sequence used to build proteins. Since that time, precious little has been discovered about the other half of the genome, referred to as the “cis-regulatory code.” This is the part that harbors the instructions that govern when and where all genes must be expressed. A main arm of my research involves deciphering this code. 

At the same time, I also map the genetic networks that are the foundation of embryonic development. Much like an architect will draw a blueprint of a house, I reverse engineer the instructions of how an animal is built and diagram the relationship between all DNA-binding proteins. All of my experiments are carried out on marine organisms. Recently, I have ventured into the realm of robotics by developing an automated genomic sequencer that will soon be made commercially available. Technological innovation is crucial to pioneer new research and I develop new tools, such as this, out of necessity.

microscopic images BIOS

A main aspect of Barsi’s research involves investigating part of the genome, called the “cis-regulatory code,” that contains information governing when and where genes are expressed during embryonic development. This collage contains images of differential gene expression across a variety of embryos from different animals. Each color represents a unique DNA-binding protein responsible for activating hundreds of downstream genes. [Top row, left to right: sea urchin, mouse, mouse, mouse, sea urchin. Second row, left image: fruit fly. The remainder of the images are from sea urchins]

Your wife is also a scientist. Does her work intersect with yours?
My wife, Klara Barsi, is a chemist and molecular biologist who was working on cancer research in Cambridge (United Kingdom) prior to joining me at Caltech. Her research interests certainly overlap with my own and I benefit greatly from her insight. We met at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York during a conference on systems biology. She and our two children will be joining me here in Bermuda later this year.

We hear you have a love of travel, can you share any of your experiences with us?
Over the years I’ve traveled to many remote locations around the world. Prior to embarking on my journey, I familiarize myself with the geography, history, and cultural aspects of each location. Once there, I live alongside the local population—sometimes no larger than a small village—and, to the extent that I can, experience their way of life. In addition to this, I like to document the flora, fauna, and sounds of the places I have visited and organize them according to the GPS coordinates from which they were sampled.