Throwing the wrong switch

Document Type

News Article

Publication Date


Campus Unit

School of Medicine & Health Sciences


Husband-and-wife UND research team explores how cells make decisions and gene “switches” can go wrong, which could lead to the onset of cancer

Diseases like cancer sometimes start because a genetic switch goes bad—just like faulty wiring in your home leads to problems.

University of North Dakota molecular biologists and research collaborators, and husband-and-wife team Archana Dhasarathy and Sergei Nechaev are searching for clues in the body’s “switches” that turn genes on and off. When that system works right, things run smoothly, but when they go awry, you start seeing problems such as cancer.

This vital work is done at the molecular level; you can’t really see directly what’s going on, say Dhasarathy and Nechaev. Both are in the UND Epigenetics COBRE and the Epigenetics and Bioinformatics Core at the School of Medicine and Health Sciences—in other words, they’re both experts in the highly complex field of molecular genetics.

“We’re looking at the basic mechanism of how cells are programmed epigenetically into different fates,” said Nechaev; that is, how cells become, say, muscle cells or stomach lining cells or liver cells.

“It all starts with genes, which are pretty much the same, but the information can be read completely differently in different cell types,” Nechaev said. “We’re trying to see how cells know how to activate. It’s not about genes, it’s about which genes and patterns of genes are active in each cell type.”

Problem here—and it’s a very big problem—is how do cells know which pattern of genes to activate.

“It’s tough because we have thousands of them to choose from,” Dhasarathy said. “How do cells do this properly and, for the most part, avoid improper choices which could lead to cancer (and other diseases).”

Their work—like that of many of their colleagues in research today—is largely collaborative. It involves experts in a variety of fields such as bioinformatics and systems biology.