Section for Cell and Neurobiology, Department of Biology, Faculty of Science, University of Copenhagen

Research field

Neuroendocrinology and Physiology

Contact info

Email: kahalberg@bio.ku.dk
Phone: +45 26810458

Research leader

Kenneth Agerlin Halberg

Associate Professor, MSc, PhD, born 1981

Project title

Identification of osmosensory mechanism and osmoregulatory networks in insects

What is your project about?

Animals must continuously adapt to osmotic challenges to maintain homeostasis and to survive. This requires the coordinated actions of organs with specialized functions, which in turn are modulated by systemic signals communicated by other organs to ensure an appropriate physiological response by the organisms. Molecular osmoreceptors lie at the heart of the central mechanisms coordinating these processes. Yet, the molecular identity of such osmosensitive molecules, and how they modulate the release of known neuroendocrine factors that control systemic osmoregulation, is unknown. Using the genetic model organism, Drosophila melanogaster, this research program will unmask the molecular, cellular and network mechanisms that control systemic osmoregulation in the most species-rich group on Earth; the insects.

How did you become interested in your particular field of research?

I have always been greatly fascinated by the complexity of the natural world, and especially by the mechanisms that have allowed life to colonize Earth. This fascination was later on sharpened by insights into how animal adaptations to environmental challenges intimately depend on a complex network of chemical signals, which help adjust internal responses to external conditions. The idea of investigating the hormonal control of insect osmoregulation arose when I realized that the insects must have developed particularly innovative solutions to solve their severe osmoregulatory challenges. A detailed understanding of these mechanisms can help us understand why this group of animals has had such evolutionary success.

What are the scientific challenges and perspectives in your project?

We need to identify the exact genes - and the proteins they encode - that allow cells and tissues to sense and respond to changes in internal water abundance. With approximately 15,500 genes in the Drosophila genome, this is not going to be a trivial matter. Furthermore, we will try and gain insight into the exact "cocktail" of hormones that are released during a defined set of environmental challenges, in order to map the inter-organ communication networks responsible for a given adaptation. This has never before been attempted. To achieve this, we will team up with world-leading experts from Denmark, Scotland, and the US, to gain the combined expertise and knowledge necessary to solve these complex tasks.

What is your estimate of the impact, which your project may have to society in the long term?

Insects are among the most successful organisms on earth, but they also pose the biggest threat to global food security. Effective insect pest management tools are thus key to food production. Yet, in spite of documented risks of chemical control to both humans and the environment, very few new insecticides have come to market. It is thus my firm hope and belief that by uncovering the mechanisms underlying systemic osmoregulation in insects - a highly attractive target of intervention - this research program may facilitate the development of new, more "eco-friendly" biocontrol agents that are both safe and specific, and thus help solve one the biggest challenges of the 21st century. 

Which impact do you expect the Sapere Aude programme will have on your career as a researcher?

Joining the prestigious Sapere Aude-programme is first and foremost a great honour and a wonderful opportunity to accelerate my research career. It will allow me to consolidate my position in the Danish research environment, and it will provide me with the resources necessary for bringing my young and dynamic research team to the forefront of neuroendocrine research worldwide. Having the opportunity to actualise the innovative concepts of the ambitious project, will allow me to address some of the most fundamental questions in neuroendocrinology and physiology.

Background and personal life

My curiosity for the natural world has brought me to the far corners of Earth - from the Greenlandic ice sheet to the Vietnamese rainforest - and I have spent almost half of the past decade abroad. I enjoy spending time with friends and family, especially with my fiancé and two little rascals age 2 and 8, which is how I "recharge my batteries". Although increasingly difficult, it is important for me to stay physically active, and I typically spend time running and exercising a few times a week, preferably outdoors. I also enjoy traveling and embarking on small as well as large adventures, and in particular to immerse myself into foreign (food-)cultures and nature experiences. I am a passionate consumer of whisky and coffee!

 

City of your current residence

Hvidovre

High school

Rødovre Gymnasium