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Center of Excellence in Genomic Science to be Established in Chicago

October 21, 2016
by Rajiv Leventhal
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The National Human Genome Research Institute has awarded $10.6 million over five years for the establishment of a new research center in Chicago to advance genomic science.

Chicago’s first Center of Excellence in Genomic Science—one of only seven such centers in the U.S.— will be led by University of Chicago scientists who will aim to develop new and innovative technologies to decode RNA modifications, the next layer of gene expression control, University of Chicago said in an announcement.

Indeed, the center, will create new technologies for studying how RNA—the middle step between DNA and protein—is regulated by chemical modifications inside cells. These modifications, present in almost every eukaryotic organism and cell, are critical in development and disease, including neurological disorders and cancer, officials attest.

In cells, DNA encodes the recipe for producing proteins, the building blocks of life. The middleman is RNA, a copy of a DNA segment that travels to ribosomes, where proteins are constructed. While much research has focused on DNA modifications that stimulate or inhibit this gene expression, the impact of RNA modifications in gene expression received scant attention until 2011.

But, there have been limitations of current approaches for finding and mapping RNA modifications, as well as determining their roles in development and disease. As such, the new center’s primary mission will be to develop new methods and sequencing technologies that enable fundamental and clinical investigations of various chemical marks on RNA or epitranscriptomes, facilitating the discovery and characterization of new “switches” on the control panel of gene expression in different biological processes and disease.

The new center will pursue new procedures for finding and mapping RNA modifications, as well as manipulating their functions to observe their effects upon RNA metabolism and gene expression. The team also will develop new bioinformatics methods for analyzing RNA modifications. Collaborations with researchers at Johns Hopkins University and Emory University will apply these new technologies to studies of human neurodevelopment and neurogenesis, to examine the role of RNA modifications in brain development and disease, officials said.

“In the next five years, both the NIH and us envision that this CEGS will invent new technologies to really impact fundamental biology and human health,” said Chuan He, Ph.D., the John T. Wilson Distinguished Service Professor in Chemistry and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigato “RNA modifications are one of the major ways to affect gene expression regulation; they intersect with different biological pathways and impact essential and fundamental biological processes. So we want to solve the current bottleneck problems of their detection and sequencing.”

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