Skip Navigation

Robert Wessells, Ph.D.

Title and department:
Assistant Professor, Internal Medicine

Mailing address:
University of Michigan Geriatrics Center
3013 BSRB
109 Zina Pitcher Place
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-2200

Phone: 734-615-8036; Fax: 734-936-9220


Research Interests
The broad focus of our research group is cardiac senescence, or the reductions in cardiac performance that occur as a result of normal aging.  Since aging hearts are more susceptible to a wide variety of pathologies, understanding and combating normal aging of the cardiovascular system has great potential for simultaneously protecting against many pathologies.  We have developed a number of techniques for assessing long-term changes in Drosophila heart function, and we are using these techniques in two ongoing research directions.

Fatty acid transporters
We have described mutations in genes encoding closely related functional proteins necessary for cellular intake of free fatty acids and for regulating the rate of fatty acid metabolism.  Mutations in these genes have profound impacts on cellular metabolism and organismal homeostasis.  In particular, one such mutation in the dFatp gene provides substantial lifespan extension and resistance to multiple dietary and physiological stresses.  We continue to more thoroughly examine the cellular and physiological mechanisms by which these protective phenotypes occur.

Anti-senescence effects of endurance exercise
We have developed a novel machine called the Power Tower that allows endurance training of Drosophila.  Flies that have been through a three-week exercise training course display dramatic improvements in climbing ability and cardiac performance at advanced ages.  We are using this model system, in combination with standard Drosophila genetics, to identify critical genetic components necessary for this improvement to occur.  Both candidate gene approaches and unbiased screens are in progress to increase the list of genes known to be necessary for this process. Such genes will represent important targets for interventions to bring the benefits of exercise to humans who are unable to undergo endurance training themselves, whether because of advanced age, degenerative disease, or advanced age. One such gene, spargel, has already been demonstrated to mimic several of the benefits of endurance training and represents a potential target for therapeutic intervention.

Brief Biography
Dr. Wessells graduated with a B.S. in Zoology from Miami University in 1993 before acquiring a Ph.D. in Molecular Genetics from the Ohio State University in 2000. He received postdoctoral training in fruit fly genetics and physiology at the University of Michigan and the Burnham Institute for Biomedical Research before taking his present position in 2006.

Recent Publications
Wessells R.J., Fitzgerald E., Cypser J.R., Tatar M. and Bodmer R. (2004). Insulin regulation of heart function in aging Drosophila. Nat. Genet. 36, 1275–1281.

N. Piazza, M. Hayes, I. Martin, A. Duttaroy, M. Grotewiel, R.J. Wessells. (2009) Multiple measures of functionality exhibit progressive decline in a parallel, stochastic fashion in Drosophila SOD2 null mutants. Biogerontology 10, 637-48. PMID: 19148770

N. Piazza, B. Gosangi, S. Devilla, R. Arking, R.J. Wessells. (2009). Exercise-training in young Drosophila melanogaster reduces age-related declines in mobility and cardiac function. PloS ONE4, e5886. PMID: 19517023

R.J. Wessells+, E. Fitzgerald, N. Piazza, K. Ocorr, H.-Y.Lim, L. Mitchell, M. Hayes, S. Oldham, R. Bodmer+(2009).  dS6K acts non-autonomously, and d4eBP acts directly, to control cardiac functional aging in Drosophila.  Aging Cell 8, 542-52. PMID: 19594484

Jennens, J.*, Morley, S.*, Zheng, L., Piazza, N., Healey, L., Tinkerhess, M.,A.
Sujkowski, A., Wessells, R.J. (2011) dFatp regulates nutrient distribution and long
term physiology in Drosophila.  (Submitted).