CSU research team awarded $200,000 to create genome institute

Christina Dennison

An interdisciplinary team of seven investigators at Colorado State University was awarded $200,000 in February to develop the Institute for Genome Architecture and Function. This institute will facilitate research on how genetic material is organized, and how it relates to diseases, such as cancer, autism and Down syndrome.

This funding was awarded to seven teams as part of the Catalyst for Innovative Partnerships program, sponsored by the Office of the Vice President for Research. The goal of these grants is to stimulate long-term, interdisciplinary research partnerships that will be able to compete for grants that fund big ideas.

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“A lot of the big discoveries come out of left field, so not all research has to be completely targeted at curing a disease,” said Karolin Luger, director of IGAF. “There’s a lot of really important basic science that will lead to discoveries that you didn’t even know were there.”

Luger is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and a University distinguished professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Her lab uses X-ray crystallography to understand the atomic structure of chromatin.

Special proteins, called histones, enable DNA to be tightly packed into structures called chromatin, which further compact into chromosomes. Mutations or damage to DNA affect the structure and organization of chromosomes, giving rise to diseases such as cancer or birth defects.

“If you understand how these mutations form, you can kind of take measures to reduce that rate of mutation,” said J. Lucas Argueso, assistant professor and Boettcher investigator in the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences.

Argueso studies mutations that disrupt the structure of the genome, and are associated with autism.

“The discovery-based research is really fundamental to understanding the underlying mechanisms of a disease process,” said Laurie Stargell, professor and associate chair of undergraduate studies in the BMB Department, whose research focuses on understanding regulation of gene expression.

All of the scientists in the group study the basic mechanisms involved in chromatin and chromosome organization, and how they relate to diseases. However, each of these researchers approach this problem from a different angle and scale using cell biology, biochemistry, genetics, biophysics or mathematical modeling. 

“What we would like to do is come together and study (chromatin and chromosomes) in a more holistic way, and be able to exploit each other’s techniques and technologies to create a more unified view of how chromatin is organized in the cell,” said Jennifer DeLuca, associate professor in the BMB Department.

Research in DeLuca’s lab is looking at how chromosomes separate during mitosis. Her lab is interested in understanding the proteins that enable chromosome movement.

DeLuca explained that engineers Ashok Prasad and Randy Bartels will help the team develop technologies and imaging techniques to better visualize, analyze and understand the data.

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Prasad is an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Biological Engineering, who uses computational techniques to model biological data. Bartels is a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and will help in developing tools to image genome structure.

The IGAF team agrees that the ease and willingness of their colleagues to collaborate on research projects has been a rewarding part of being at CSU.

“There’s kind of a unified desire to have not just yourself do well, but everybody do well,” De Luca said. “It raises up everybody.”

Luger explained that the seven founding members of IGAF have plans to increase the number of faculty to 15 to 20 members, depending on research interests. There will be an open call for additional institute members from faculty across CSU later in the year.

Unlike more traditional awards, the VPR’s office is helping teams with tasks that would otherwise take time and resources away from research, mentoring and teaching.

Susan Bailey, professor in the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences, studies the organization of chromosomes and the role of telomeres in this process following DNA damage. She explained how this funding is benefiting students who will become future scientists.

“One of the aspects of this institute is training,” said Bailey. “We have many great students, and I think developing the summer program and some of these other key components of the institute will really facilitate training of graduate students.”

Collegian Science Beat Reporter Christina Dennison can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @csdennison.