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Fishman Lab

Image credit: Luis Hernandez-Nunez, Mariela Petkova, Yasuko Isoe
Principal Investigator

Mark C. Fishman, M.D.

Image of Mark C. Fishman, M.D.

Mark C. Fishman, M.D.

  • Professor of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology
  • Principal Faculty
    Harvard Stem Cell Institute
  • Board of Directors
    Beam Therapeutics
  • Board of Directors
    Skyline Therapeutics
  • Co-Founder and Chair of the Scientific Advisory Board
    Aditum Bio

Mark C. Fishman’s laboratory seeks (1) to unravel the heart-brain axis, using the larval zebrafish to define the circuitry and function of autonomic control of cardiac function, and (2) to understand the genetic and neuronal structure of social behavior in vertebrates.

1. Cardiac nervous system. The heart and brain are intimately linked, with second-by-second neural feedback to cardiac physiology from internal baro- and chemoreceptors. In addition, the heart has its own intrinsic set of nerves, today of poorly understood function. We are exploring the development and precise cell fate and connectivity of intrinsic neurons of the heart, and those that connect heart and brain, in order to understand how homeostatic control develops.

2. Social behavior. Social behavior is key to evolution, and its failure the major impediment evident in many psychiatric disorders. The time is ripe for its investigation because of the availability of computational and genetic tools. With quantitative and automated video tracking and imaging, and algorithms which train computers to recognize specific activities, we have captured and analyzed robust social behaviors, such as courtship, shoaling, aggression, and leadership, and discovered the precursors to such complex functions even in the larval fish. This makes this emergent behavior accessible to single cell and circuit analysis of neuronal activity.

We use the zebrafish because we have found previously, based on our large-scale genetic screen, that this species provides access to key genetic nodes, entrance points to complex biological processes. For example, complemented by physiological analyses, we were able to begin to understand the fashioning of vertebrate organ systems and the onset of their function.We compare the behaviors and circuitry of fish with defined genetic changes, introduced by CRISPR-based genetic modification of specific loci, including those putatively related to human disease.


In the 1990s, by harnessing the first large-scale genetic screens in zebrafish (performed in collaboration with W. Driever and contemporaneously with C. Nuesslein-Volhard), and by providing much of the early genomic infrastructure, Fishman’s lab helped to make the zebrafish a cornerstone of developmental biology, and led to revelation of many of the pathways that guide vertebrate organ development, particularly the heart and vessels.

From 2002 to 2016, Fishman was the founding President of the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research (NIBR). During his tenure, NIBR discovered and brought through successful clinical trials 90 new medicines in more than 120 indications. Fishman brought a particular focus on regenerative medicines as treatments for disorders of aging. He has continued his interest in therapeutics, with Professor Melton inaugurating a new Harvard Masters program in Biotechnology of Life Sciences, combined with a Harvard MBA. He serves on the Board of Directors of Beam Therapeutics and Skyline Therapeutics, is a founder and SAB Chair of Aditum Bio, and SAB member of Tenaya Therapeutics.

Fishman graduated from Yale College and Harvard Medical School, and was a resident and Chief Resident in Medicine, and fellow in Cardiology, at the MGH and later Chief of the Cardiology Division and Director of the Cardiovascular Research Center at Harvard Medical School and MGH. In addition to his publications in developmental biology and drug discovery, Fishman is the author of  the medical textbook, Medicine, and of the book Lab: Building a Home for Scientists, on the history and architectural design of buildings for scientists. Fishman is a member of the National Academy of Medicine, where he recently served two terms on the Executive Committee and Council, and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Lab Overview

What the heart tells the brain (and vice versa)

The heart, like all internal organs, has its own local mini-brain.  Nerve cells designed to sense the microenvironment connect to other neurons and to heart muscle and to pacemaker cells.  This circuit sends signals to the brain and, in turn, is regulated by central nervous system control.  It is brought into play for normal blood pressure and oxygen level control and for flight-or-fight responses, adaptation to low oxygen environments, and for “playing dead”, all evolutionary strategies conserved from fish to man.  When the system falters, as in disorders termed dysautonomia, the consequences for patients are dire, including syncope and arrhythmias.

Our goal is to understand the complete circuitry and the function of each individual nerve cell.  What signals do they register? How do cardiac nerves set the “internal state” of the brain and its responsiveness to external stimuli?  How does the system interact with respiration and adapt to stressors such as hypoxia?

We use the zebrafish for these projects. Collaboratively with the labs of Florian Engert (MCB) and of Misha Ahrens at Janelia, we are defining the connectivity of nerve cells in the heart and associated ganglia, and the central nervous system centers to which they connect.  Projects involve single cell transcriptional analysis, electron microscopy, expansion microscopy, and optogenetics, the latter to test and reveal function of individual cells.


Genetics of Collective Behavior 

Our goal is to discover the genetic, cellular, and neural pathways that govern social behaviors.

Animals live in conspecific groups, as schools of fish, flocks of birds, or tribes of humans. This behavior provides evolutionary advantages in foraging for food, avoidance of predators, and choice of migratory routes, but also requires sacrifices on the part of individuals. What are the forces that direct individuals to participate in and lead such groups? How are they communicated? Are these behaviors encoded In the nervous system and how are they translated into action? How and when do these behaviors develop?

The medical implications of this work are profound. Many psychiatric disorders, including autism and schizophrenia, are manifest primarily as deficits in certain social abilities. Are the genes associated with psychiatric illness among those dedicated to social interactions? Are their roles conserved from fish to man?

In collaboration with Florian Engert’s lab, we are using zebrafish to understand how genetic changes in individuals affect how groups form and behave. Collective behavior is an “emergent” group property. We have discovered that mutations in in zebrafish genes related to human disorders of social behavior, such as autism or schizophrenia, change how the adult fish swim in groups, for example, tending to scatter or huddle more than do wild-type. These same tendencies are evident even in young larvae.  Simple algorithms, based on how an individual larval fish responds to dots moving in its environment, can predict how the fish behave in groups, and can account for a large proportion of the differences in the mutant fish.  This gives us the chance to understand, at a single cell level, what neural changes can account for the different responses. Because we have found that drugs useful in patients with psychiatric disorders can reverse certain of the behavioral differences in mutant fish, we can also use this system to screen for novel therapeutics.

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