Kaveh Ashrafi, PhD


Professor, UCSF School of Medicine

Ph.D. in Molecular Cell Biology and Biochemistry, Washington University
B.S. in Biochemistry, Virginia Tech

The Ashrafi Lab studies energy balance in intact organisms using C. elegans as an experimental system investigating neural circuits regulating feeding behavior, neuroendocrine regulators of fat metabolism, and how metabolic state regulates behavioral plasticity. Additionally, the lab employs phenotypic screening and in silico predictions to identify and decipher the mechanisms through which small molecules affect fat and feeding mechanisms.

Projects: 

Regulation of fat content involves a complex interplay between central regulators of feeding behavior in the nervous system, neuroendocrine signals, and metabolic regulators of energy expenditure and fat storage. The lab uses genetic, cellular, and molecular approaches for understanding the networks that underlie the regulation of body fat in C. elegans. By combining classical mutagenesis screens with RNA-mediated interference to disrupt the expression of thousands of individual worm genes, Dr. Ashrafi's lab has identified over 500 genes that, when inactivated, affect body fat content in worms. These fat regulatory genes include receptors, channels, signal transduction molecules, transcription and translation factors, vesicular transporters, metabolic enzymes, and a number of genes with unassigned functions. The shared ancestry of the known mammalian and worm fat regulatory genes suggest that many of these newly identified genes may also function in human fat regulation.


The Ashrafi Lab seeks to:

  • Understand molecular functions and regulatory modes of newly identified genes.
  • Understand principles governing the networking of hundreds of genes expressed across multiple tissues regulating a complex physiological process.
  • Delineate the neuronal networks that regulate food intake and energy expenditure in worms. 
  • Apply these findings to identify mammalian fat and obesity genes and analyze how gene misregulation results in obesity-associated diseases.

To decipher the modes of function of the newly identified genes, genetic interaction networks are established between various mutants and RNAi clones that cause fat reduction or fat increase. Suppressor/enhancer screens disentangle the complex feedback loops that affect body fat.


Fat regulatory genes can be broadly classified as those that impact food intake or energy expenditure. Thus, the lab measures each of these parameters in the mutant animals or animals exposed to each fat regulatory RNAi clone.


Fusion of GFP tags to fat regulatory proteins allows for monitoring cellular expression and subcellular localization of each of the fat regulatory genes. These GFP fusions classify the genes directly involved in fat storage and utilization or those that function as neuronal regulators of feeding and energy expenditure. These experiments categorize the RNAi clones into subsets with related functions. For example, kinases within a group would be likely to phosphorylate the metabolic enzymes or transcription factors of the same group. Moreover, it can be determined whether the expression or localization of a given fat regulatory gene is regulated by extrinsic or intrinsic signals such as fat levels, food, developmental stage, and other fat regulatory genes. Finally, since the complete map of the worm neuronal connections has been described, cellular localization of fat regulatory proteins could delineate the neuronal networks that regulate feeding behavior and energy expenditure. The lab tests the hypothesis using a combination of laser ablation of specific neurons and single neuron gene expression studies.


Importantly, these types of analyses can be applied to many C. elegans genes whose mammalian homologs have been implicated in diseases of fat and sterol metabolism. In collaborative studies, findings from C. elegans are being extended to rodent models of obesity. Genes discovered in C. elegans point to candidate obesity or diabetes loci within the large genomic regions identified in human pedigree and rodent studies. In other collaborative studies, candidate genes from collections of obese or diabetic pedigrees will be sequenced to identify variants.

 

Molecular and genetic analysis of newly identified fat regulatory genes including disease associated genes
Functional analysis of fat regulatory genes on food intake and energy expenditure
Identification of the neuronal networks that mediate energy homeostasis
Mapping and molecular cloning of fat regulatory mutants

Kaveh Ashrafi earned his undergraduate degree in Biochemistry from Virginia Tech before pursuing a PhD in Molecular Cell Biology and Biochemistry at Washington University School of Medicine. He completed subsequent postdoctoral research at Harvard Medical School and The Massachusetts General Hospital before joining the UCSF department of Physiology as Assistant Professor.

 

Dr. Ashrafi holds a number of awards including a Jack D. and DeLoris Lange Endowed Chair in Systems Physiology, two Haile T. Debas Academy of Educators Excellence in Teaching Awards from UCSF, and a Kaiser Award for Excellence in Teaching. In addition to being an Associate Professor for the Department of Physiology, he is faculty in the PIBS Graduate Program as well as the BMS Graduate Program and affiliated with the Cardiovascular Research Institute.

George Lemieux, Specialist
Mihir Vohra, Graduate Student (Neuroscience)
Lin Lin, Postdoctoral Fellow
Patricia Caballero, Laboratory Assistant