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Developing bioinformatic approaches to epigenetics and health

Genomics Aotearoa postdoctoral fellow Basharat Bhat will be an important part of the push to expose researchers to bioinformatics practice and build capability in New Zealand. Basharat is working with Prof. Greg Jones on Epigenome-wide Association Study (EWAS) technology at the University of Otago, studying the influence of complex interactions between genes and the environment.

Basharat Bhat

Basharat Bhat

Researchers need analysis tools to interpret the available genomic data and identify pathways associated with disease, which is where Basharat’s bioinformatics skills come in – with processes for understanding the biological data derived from genomics. His role is to establish and contribute to the development of tools for epigenome-wide association analysis for Genomics Aotearoa and the New Zealand research community, and develop management systems for large-scale epigenetic data.

Epigenetics is the influence of genetic susceptibility combined with the complex interactions of each individual’s environment over their lifetime. An individual’s epigenome is a personalised profile of environmental stress exposures, influenced by things like diet, gut microbiota, toxin and drug exposure, psychological and physical stressors and levels of activity throughout life. Measuring the epigenetic changes that occur in diseases helps to know more on the underlying mechanisms.

Understanding these interaction between genes and environment is a fascinating area of research. Basharat will initially be looking at diabetes, heart disease and aortic aneurysm to better understand the biology of these conditions. This will potentially identify novel drug targets and potentially save lives. Ultimately, identifying the markers that show how disease is associated with environmental factors could help to develop more targeted diagnostic tools and treatment options, and better manage some of New Zealand’s big health problems like cardiovascular disease.

Basharat will also contribute to bioinformatics capability building in New Zealand through workshops and symposia to disseminate various tools and techniques to other researchers and scientists.

Basharat’s background

Basharat has come to New Zealand from India. He studied computer science, then worked as a software engineer before returning to study bioinformatics, completing his doctorate at Shiv Nadar University, India. He drew on his computational skills to develop tools and databases for the research community. During his doctoral programme, he worked on a national agricultural science funded project to generate a transcriptome and genomic map of the pashmina goat, utilising a multi-omics approach.

Having been involved in publishing the first complete genome of the pashmina goat, he wanted to switch to human studies to make a difference in human health. “I am also looking forward to the training aspect here - I hope to make the researcher’s job easier.”

Basharat loves New Zealand and is taken with its natural beauty and its calmness. He’s also thriving in a working environment that gives him time to think and exchange ideas.

“I love the combination of learning new techniques, developing tools, and teaching students curious about bioinformatics with very little or no experience, through to training postdocs and other researchers in the field of epigenetics and other relevant subjects. I feel a responsibility to pass it on. The key to creating bioinformatics capability in New Zealand is creating as much exposure to bioinformatics as I can, starting within Genomics Aotearoa but eventually nationwide. My end goal is the bigger picture – I want to contribute positively for a better tomorrow.”

Bioinformatics areas of expertise:

  • Genomics, big data analysis and visualisation    
  • Transcriptomics data analysis (coding and non-coding RNA)
  • Genome comparison     
  • Proteome data analysis
  • Structural bioinformatics and personalised medicine    
  • Tool development (standalone and web-based)