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Rohner Lab

We seek to understand how animals adapt to extreme environments, resulting in unique genetic adaptations that may shed light on human metabolic conditions like diabetes and heart disease.

Research Summary

How can cavefish adaptations enlighten our understanding of human health?

Research Areas

Evolutionary Biology, Development and Regeneration, Systems Biology



The Rohner Lab investigates metabolic adaptations that arise from extreme environments and their implication for metabolic diseases. In nature, this manifests in multiple species—hibernating animals, migratory birds, snakes that intake vast quantities of food to store excess energy as fat during extended periods of starvation, minus the negative consequences seen in humans, for example. Some migratory birds develop a fatty liver, but unlike humans, this doesn’t lead to inflammation.

The Rohner Lab has extensively investigated how Mexican cavefish can withstand high blood sugar and insulin resistance, without any detrimental health effects. The lab has demonstrated that while cavefish have excessive visceral fat, they have fewer signs of inflammation compared to their river-dwelling kin, who have an active immune system to fight off parasites. Cavefish have adapted to environments with few or no parasites without having auto-inflammatory diseases common in species living in similar conditions. The lab has additionally uncovered that cavefish share a similar mutation with humans that causes binge eating for fat storage when food is scarce. This same mutation in humans also results in overeating.

The lab is focused on understanding all aspects of how cavefish have become resilient to traits that would naturally result in dysfunction and disease in other species.

Principal Investigator

Nicolas Rohner

Associate Investigator

Stowers Institute for Medical Research

Portrait of Nicolas Rohner

Get to know the lab

Mexican tetra cavefish, also known as Astyanax mexicanus

“For almost every problem you study, it seems that evolution, and nature, has already found a solution.”

“We’ve just scratched the surface,” says Rohner about his research. “We’re really interested in learning more about how cavefish become resilient to all these traits that are considered metabolic dysfunction in other systems. There’s still a lot to discover in that area.”

Dr. Nicolas Rohner's lab team standing beneath a statue at the Stowers Institute in Kansas City

Our Team

Why Stowers?

Investigator Nicolas Rohner explains the collaborative nature of the Institute, and why he is excited to be here every day.

Featured Publications

Liver-derived cell lines from cavefish Astyanax mexicanus as an in vitro model for studying metabolic adaptation

Krishnan J, Wang Y, Kenzior O, Hassan H, Olsen L, Tsuchiya D, Kenzior A, Peuss R, Xiong S, Wang Y, Zhao C, Rohner N. Sci Rep. 2022;12:10115. doi: 10110.11038/s41598-10022-14507-10110.

The metabolome of Mexican cavefish shows a convergent signature highlighting sugar, antioxidant, and Ageing-Related metabolites

Medley JK, Persons J, Biswas T, Olsen L, Peuss R, Krishnan J, Xiong S, Rohner N. eLife. 2022;11:e74539. doi: 74510.77554/eLife.74539.

Genome-wide analysis of cis-regulatory changes in the metabolic adaptation of cavefish

Krishnan J, Seidel CW, Zhang N, Singh NP, VanCampen J, Peuss R, Xiong S, Kenzior A, Li H, Conaway JW, Rohner N. Nat Genet. 2022;54:684-693.

Enhanced lipogenesis through Ppary helps cavefish adapt to food scarcity

Xiong S, Wang W, Kenzior A, Olsen L, Krishnan J, Persons J, Medley K, Peuss R, Wang Y, Chen S, Zhang N, Thomas N, Miles JM, Sánchez Alvarado A, Rohner N. [published ahead of print April 8 2022].Curr Biol. 2022.

Insulin resistance in cavefish as an adaptation to a nutrient-limited environment

Riddle MR, Aspiras AC, Gaudenz K, Peuss R, Sung JY, Martineau B, Peavey M, Box AC, Tabin JA, McGaugh S, Borowsky R, Tabin CJ, Rohner N. Nature. 2018;555:647-651. Authors Correction: Nature. 2020 Nov 13. pii: 10.1038/s41586-020-2953-x. doi: 10.1038/s41586-020-2953-x.

Adaptation to low parasite abundance affects immune investment and immunopathological responses of cavefish

Peuß R, Box AC, Chen S, Wang Y, Tsuchiya D, Persons JL, Kenzior A, Maldonado E, Krishnan J, Scharsack JP, Slaughter BD, Rohner N. Nat Ecol Evol. 2020;4:1416-1430.

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