With great pleasure we introduce Dr Giacomo Cavalli, Head of the Chromatin and Cell Biology Lab at the Institute of Human Genetics (IGH) – CNRS, Montpellier, France.

Giacomo will be speaking at our final online Epigenetics seminar of 2021 on 16th November.  He has also taken the time recently to tell us a little about his career journey, his research and himself – thank you Dr Cavalli!

I hope you enjoy learning about him as much as we did.

What brought you to the world of epigenetics and the 3D genome? How did it all begin for you?

Marnie Blewitt

Great question–it gave me the spark to go ahead and dig into my notebooks from university (some of which I still have…unbelievable!), and it was fun to find that I wrote notes about questions that fascinated me at the time. A lot of my questions were around the possible role of chromosome conformation in heredity or cell differentiation, asking how dynamic can chromosome architecture be and how much variability in it is compatible with function. 

Other questions I had were whether histones and other chromatin proteins might have a role in inheritance (at some point I literally wrote that in that case one might speak of ‘genetic proteins’). All this back in 1987, before we knew many of the things about histone modifications, noncoding RNAs and DNA methylation patterns that we know today. So, in essence, from my early university studies I became fascinated about all the possible ways to regulate gene expression and inherit different chromatin states beyond the changes of DNA sequence, a field that was really just being born, but was potentially a very rich source to provide us with exciting new knowledge.

In your career to date, of what are you most proud?

Uh, I am not a big friend of the very concept of ‘pride’. I might say that I am glad that I have had great mentors, such as Fritz Thoma and Theo Koller during my PhD at the ETH Zürich, and Renato Paro for my postdoc at the University of Heidelberg. They provided great inspiration, great colleagues in their labs, infrastructure, funding and freedom to pursue the research I loved. Many serendipitous encounters were also pivotal during my researcher’s life and allowed me and our lab to demonstrate that chromatin components can drive inheritance through mitotic divisions and into subsequent generations, to identify a link between epigenetic inheritance and higher-order chromatin structure and to actually describe the hierarchical folding of chromosomes from the nucleosome level to whole chromosome territories.

Can you tell us about a couple of things happening in your lab right now that you’re excited about?

We are pursuing two main lines of study; the first study is on 3D genome architecture, where we are reaching an unprecedented resolution that can allow us to see patterns of chromatin contacts invisible with lower resolution maps, and the second is on the mechanisms driving epigenetic inheritance, particularly the role of polycomb components in this phenomenon.

Would you like to tell us a little about the IGH (Institute of Human Genetics)?

The IGH is a fantastic place to do research. The Institute has 24 research teams that work on genome dynamics, developmental genetics and on the mechanisms of human pathologies, in particular cancer and viral infections.

We work on various model organisms, cell types and patient samples, and we have an excellent infrastructure and a vibrant international atmosphere where labs frequently collaborate and help one another. This team spirit is boosted by the excellent facilities and infrastructure and by the organization of retreats and meetings.

We also play an active role in research communication, both online (for instance my lab has a YouTube channel: Cavalli lab videos) and on site, thanks to our outreach arm called Genopolys.

Last but not least, Montpellier is a wonderful place to live, located on the Mediterranean coast and rich in cultural events. This is a truly great place to do great science combined with a high quality of life.

If funding and time were unlimited, what dream idea or project would you like to develop? 

I think that a lot could be done to bring our understanding of epigenetics and 3D genome organization to the point where it can beneficially impact human health and the world ecosystems.

This would require a funding scale that surpasses what we can currently achieve, but bold funding decisions at the continental or world scale might help fulfil this dream, and make epigenetics a major player in personalised medicine applications as well as in the study of the biosphere.

Outside your own lab, what research or technological developments in the field are you excited about?

There are terrific developments in the single-cell multi-omics and the imaging fields, but…why keep them outside of our lab?! In fact, whenever possible, we try to incorporate the most exciting research development into our research projects!

How important has collaboration been to your research and your career?

Collaboration is key. No single lab can carry out cutting-edge research totally on their own over the long term. Sooner or later you always need expertise that you don’t have, or stumble into new developments by other people that spark you into a new idea or research avenues. The direct input from these people not only accelerates research, but also generate new ideas that emerge from these interactions.

Have you any advice for early career biomedical researchers?

Follow your dreams. Don’t be shy or scared–with your energy and self-belief you can accomplish amazing things. Give yourself chances by going to good labs, good institutes and local communities that hold science high in their scale of values. This will provide you with many chances, some of which might lead you through unexpected but wonderful paths. Do your best to choose good mentors, good colleagues and, if you come to leading positions, good lab members. Human potential is your number one resource. Finally, a little bit of realism helps as much as creativity, motivation and courage. Look into the unknown but keep an eye on the society around you.

Outside of work, what do you like to do?

I love nature and sport, I love hillwalking, hiking and visiting the beautiful rivers we have around here for a swim or for canoeing. I enjoy music, movies, theatre shows and museums and, from time to time, take a good break and travel to new places.

Have you ever visited Australia?

Unfortunately not! – “voila” one of the travels that I dream of.

The Cavalli lab group – image borrowed from their website laughing