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University of Missouri

The Shape of Your Genome

Knowing the genome’s 3-D structure could improve diagnosis, treatment.

chromosomes

Rows of chromosomes. Photo by George Gastin.

Think of your genome structure as a dormitory: You know the names of all the people who live inside, but you don’t know the shape of the building, where the hallways connect or the layout.

Without that information, you don’t know how the residents will interact, who will befriend whom from across the hall or where the party corner will be.

That’s essentially where scientists found themselves a decade ago after they sequenced the human genome. They knew the long string of nucleotides that form individual genes and the genome, but they didn’t know how that string is wound up.

Knowing the shape of the genome and which genes are neighbors helps us understand how those genes behave, says Jianlin Jack Cheng, associate professor of computer science at MU. Cheng is building a computer program that will model the genome’s 3-D structure.

That knowledge could also help diagnose and treat disease.

B-acute lymphoblastic leukemia, for instance, is caused by a disruption in the genomic structure when the tips of two neighboring chromosomes are transposed. That transposition activates genes that are supposed to be turned off, which can cause leukemia. “If we understand how genes are regulated in space, we can learn how to control the genes and diagnose and treat the disease,” Cheng says.

Cheng’s research helped earn him a five-year, $630,000 CAREER award from the National Science Foundation. The award assists young faculty members in developing promising programs of research and education.

By 2013, Cheng plans to teach two new classes in computational biology that will instruct others how to use his research methods. He also plans to talk about his research at surrounding high schools and middle schools and encourage students to pursue science careers.

By the end of the grant, Cheng hopes to finish his computer program, which researchers could use to map the structure of any genome.

Read about another CAREER award recipient, David Mendoza-Cozatl.