The Fly That Would Live Forever

Investigations into Free Radical Effects on Cells: Interview with Dr. John Phillips at the University of Guelph

Kimby N. Barton, MSc

The contributions that Dr. John Phillips has made to the field of aging research have been mostly serendipitous. Dr. Phillips' major research interest has actually been in the field of what he terms 'oxygen toxicity', which just happens to tie into the free radical theory of aging. The free radical theory of aging states that reactive oxygen species (ROS) cause cellular damage, and that this cellular damage accumulates with time, eventually leading to cellular disease and death.

Dr. Phillips did not always think of oxygen as toxic. In fact, as an undergraduate he shared the popular misconception that oxygen was quite a good thing. It wasn't until he was a graduate student that he attended a seminar in which a researcher announced that he had found a protein called superoxide dismutase or SOD. SOD is an enzyme that helps convert oxygen radicals, into its less toxic form, hydrogen peroxide, which is then, with the help of a second enzyme, catalase, converted into molecular oxygen and water. Phillips was stunned to realize that oxygen was in fact so toxic that an entire system was required to try and prevent the damage it can wreak.

He obtained a faculty position at Guelph, where he began a research program that focussed on the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster--a model organism for studying genetic disease.