November 2010

Bracing for the Revolution: The Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy at Duke University

Fitzpatrick building
A view of the Fitzpatrick building that houses many of the IGSP labs and offices.

Assistant professor Laura Rusche is one of the scientists who took the IGSP bait; in fact, she was one of the trailblazers, arriving in 2003 as one of the IGSPs first external recruits following her postdoctoral fellowship with Jasper Rine at the University of California, Berkeley.

As she talks about her own work using yeast models to understand how DNA and various proteins assemble into discrete active and silenced chromatin domains, the view from her office provides a sense of the wide breadth of IGSP’s scientific enterprise, which encompasses six component centers that study and teach genes and genomes from the molecular to the population level: genomic medicine, systems biology, evolutionary genomics, computational biology, applied genomics and technology and genome ethics, law and policy.

Directly across lies Linchong You, a biomedical engineer who designs synthetic gene circuits in bacteria to try to program specific cellular behaviors, while nearby sits the office of Greg Crawford, who has developed bioinformatics technologies that can identify DNase I hypersensitive sites (an indicator of an active DNA regulatory element) from potentially any species and cell type with a sequenced genome.

“It can be a little bit of a struggle for us to all come together because the perspectives of our members are so different— and we’re all pretty busy— but we definitely have the opportunities and desire to forge strong and diverse relationships.”

The opportunities arise from regular seminars, journal clubs and meetings that cover the wide breadth of this institute, not to mention the dozens of potential research collaborations. (And, if all else fails, Willard has been known to host dinners to directly introduce investigators who might need to get acquainted.)

Rusche has taken full advantage of this great environment in her own research. As a postdoc, she had worked with an unusual gene called SUM1, which coded for a promoter-specific repressor, and found that a single amino acid change created a mutant that could silence new and different regions.

“And, that got me thinking about where new protein function comes from,” she says. “After I came here, I started talking with an IGSP colleague, Fred Dietrich, whom I was introduced to by Hunt over dinner during my interview. He has been characterizing the genomes of various fungi related to traditional yeast, spanning hundreds of millions of years of evolution. And, with that information, I’ve started looking at the evolution of Sir2 histone deacetylases, to see how function has changed over time.”

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