Mapping the cellular neighborhood

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Mapping the cellular neighborhood

Your overeating or cigarette smoking today might have an effect on not only you but also your grandchildren.

Trying to understand the potential links between environmental exposures to various chemicals and the development of human diseases later in life is the focus of an effort by University of North Dakota biomedical researchers who recently received a five-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, which is the nation's medical research center and is the largest source of funding for medical research in the world.

Assistant Professor Joyce Ohm, Ph.D., in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), is the principal investigator for the research project. She's leading a collaborative endeavor that draws on the expertise of scientists from throughout the SMHS.

During the project titled, "Environmental toxins and stem cell epigenetic/epigenomic remodeling," UND biomedical researchers will study how a person's epigenome, the biochemical elements in the cellular neighborhood around your DNA, may direct the expression of your genetic code for good or for ill and how epigenetic changes to your DNA may be passed to your offspring and their children.

Your DNA was once thought to hold your destiny chiseled in stone; the sole determinant of who you are or will be. However, scientists have recently found that your DNA is text that is editable by your epigenome, and this fluidity plays a pivotal role in whether you develop a disease based on the effect of exposure to toxins and if you might pass this susceptibility to future generations.

"Abnormal epigenetic regulation has been implicated in a variety of human diseases," Ohm said. "Those diseases include cancer, obesity, diabetes, infertility, and neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's disease or Parkinson's disease." Ohm completed a postdoctoral fellowship in oncology with an emphasis in cancer and stem cell epigenetics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 2009.

UND scientists use two types of adult stem cells to study how environmental toxins affect epigenome: The first are induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs, adult stem cells whose calendars have been turned back by scientists to their pluripotent state, meaning the cells are not limited as to the type of cell they can become. The second are mesenchymal stem cells, which are derived from the bone marrow of adults.

Working with Ohm is Professor Brij Singh, Ph.D., and Associate Professor, John Shabb, Ph.D., from the UND Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology; and Associate Professor John Watt, Ph.D., from the UND Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology.

Because analysis of the data for the human epigenome dwarfs the effort that took place to map the human genome, they will rely on Assistant Professor Kurt Zhang, Ph.D., in the UND Department of Pathology, an expert in bioinformatics, the interdisciplinary field that uses the power of computers and statistics to analyze the wealth of information generated by biomedical researchers.

First symposium at UND

UND's work and reputation in the study of epigenomes and epigentics was bolstered even more last November, when UND played host to the first Epigenetics and Epigenomics Symposium ever held at the University.

This event brought together experts from fields such as dynamics of chromatin structure and function, epigenetics and gene expression, genomics, computational biology and human health.

In biology, and specifically genetics, epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene expression or cellular phenotype caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence.

The symposium also featured two expert speakers in the field: Michael Kladde, from the University of Florida Shands Cancer Center; and Beth Sullivan, from Duke University Genome Sciences and Policy Institute, as well as scientists from North and South Dakota, who presented research related to epigenetics and epigenomics. Students also had the opportunity to present posters based on their research.

This event primarily aimed to promote interaction and collaboration among researchers in the Dakotas and beyond, and to provide opportunities for learning about important new tools, approaches and resources to advance research as it applies to human disease and development.

Denis MacLeod SMHS Assistant Director of Alumni and Community Relations


David Dodds University Relations Writer/Editor

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