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GEMS Marks Quarter Century at Annual Fall Meeting

By Eddy Ball
December 2007

President-Elect McGee, an associate scientific review officer at NIEHS, organized and chaired the 25th anniversary meeting. She will actively promote GEMS membership and usher in the new president-elect, Jeff Ross, Ph.D., of EPA, at the 2008 fall meeting.
President-Elect McGee, an associate scientific review officer at NIEHS, organized and chaired the 25th anniversary meeting. She will actively promote GEMS membership and usher in the new president-elect, Jeff Ross, Ph.D., of EPA, at the 2008 fall meeting. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
2006-2007 President Stuart observed in his opening remarks that
2006-2007 President Stuart observed in his opening remarks that "NIEHS has been a really major benefactor over the years." This is reflected both in the Institute's financial support and in the number of past presidents who have been affiliated with NIEHS. Stuart is a visiting fellow in the NIEHS Mitochondrial DNA Replication Group. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Wilson began his remarks by noting,
Wilson began his remarks by noting, "Certainly, the title of this society is one that is near and dear to me since my own research interest is in the area of genetic toxicology [and] this area is a major area of interest at NIEHS." (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Jirtle was nominated for Time magazine's Person of the Year on November 8 by Nora Volkow, M.D., director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. She praised his work in epigenetics for producing
Jirtle was nominated for Time magazine's Person of the Year on November 8 by Nora Volkow, M.D., director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. She praised his work in epigenetics for producing "a far more complete and useful understanding of human development and diseases." (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Maynard noted the enormous money-making potential of nanotechnology. According to some predictions, he explained,
Maynard noted the enormous money-making potential of nanotechnology. According to some predictions, he explained, "By 2014 something like $2.6 trillion worth of products around the globe are going to be based or dependent in some way on nanotechnology." (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
According to Richard, a central contribution of the DSSTox project is the development of Standard Chemical Fields, which offer common search metrics to explore diverse toxicity information domains.
According to Richard, a central contribution of the DSSTox project is the development of Standard Chemical Fields, which offer common search metrics to explore diverse toxicity information domains. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
The GEMS poster session offered trainees and junior investigators additional opportunities to share their research with colleagues.
The GEMS poster session offered trainees and junior investigators additional opportunities to share their research with colleagues. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

The Genetics and Environmental Mutagenesis Society (GEMS) Exit NIEHS celebrated 25 years of bringing together the area's junior investigators, trainees and veteran investigators at its 2007 Fall Meeting in Research Triangle Park. Jointly sponsored by NIEHS, the meeting's theme was "Current and Future Issues in Environmental Toxicology."

Gathering at the Radisson Hotel on October 29, more than 100 attendees heard talks on epigenetics, nanotechnology and toxico-cheminformatics interspersed with a poster session, networking lunch and reception, six presented papers and announcements of awards for poster presentations, presented papers and the Presidents Travel Award (see text box).

Following welcoming remarks by GEMS President Greg Stuart, Ph.D., and President-Elect Rose Anne McGee, NIEHS Acting Director Sam Wilson, M.D., opened the meeting with an overview of the Institute's research "rainbow" and its bearing on the interests of GEMS members, from fundamental work in mechanism-based toxicology to the trans-NIH Roadmap 1.5 Epigenomics Program. "In our portfolio," he observed, "we like to think that there's room for everyone."

Duke University Professor of Radiation Oncology Randy Jirtle, Ph.D., gave the meeting's first keynote talk on "Epigenetics: The New Genetics of Toxicology." An NIEHS grantee, Jirtle has been featured on recent PBS "Nova" programs on epigenetics that explored the fetal origins of adult disease susceptibility in animal models and in humans, including maternal malnutrition and exposures to endocrine disrupting and mimicking compounds.

"Even identical twins that are genetically identical don't necessarily have to have the same epigenome," Jirtle observed. "As a consequence, they can have a variation in disease susceptibilities, behaviors, etc. that are regulated in part by the programming of how the genes are expressed, when and where, rather than changes in mutations."

His talk went on to explore "the glue or the gravity which holds these two time points [fetal exposures and adult disease] together." He discussed the modifications of gene expression effected by DNA methylation and alteration of chromatin structure in response to environmental factors.

Another emerging concern in relation to long-term health effects of environmental exposures was addressed in a presentation by Andrew Maynard, Ph.D., chief science advisor with the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Maynard's lecture explored the question, "Nanotechnology: The Next Big Thing, or Much Ado about Nothing?"

Maynard began by underscoring the importance of scale to understanding nanotechnology, which manipulates material that is just above the size of an atom, a scale of one nanometer upwards. The size, he explained, is crucial to both the potential benefits and potential risks of the materials produced. Just as speed can alter the behavior of matter, manipulating the sizes and shapes of materials can give them unique quantum properties.

"We can actually make quite profound changes," Maynard observed, "just by altering the atomic configuration very slightly." These changes can add disproportionate strength and conductivity to materials and expand their dexterity - or enable them to penetrate the tissue barriers between the human organism and the environment to alter dose response.

Ann Richard, Ph.D., gave the final keynote address of the meeting on "Toxico-Cheminformatics: A New Frontier for Predictive Toxicology." Richard is a principal investigator with the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) National Center for Computational Toxicology, where she is spearheading the Distributed Structure-Searchable Toxicity (DSSTox) Database Network project Exit NIEHS.

The ambitious DSSTox project endeavors to integrate available and emerging toxicity resources, including the large high-throughput screening (HTS) datasets of the NIH Molecular Libraries Initiative, as well as of toxicity-targeted programs within the EPA, Food and Drug Administration and NIEHS National Toxicology Program. The project uses standardized relational data models to significantly improve public access to information resources.

According to Richard, "Structure annotation of diverse datasets has enabled us to 'look across' these datasets in chemical space, generating chemical overlap matrices to identify those chemicals present in multiple databases of toxicological interest, and to use this information to aid in the selection and prioritization of chemicals for new HTS testing."

Oral presentation winner Carleitta Paige pursues her work on anthrax at Wake Forest University on a fellowship from the Department of Homeland Security. Paige entered the competition at the suggestion of her long-distance mentor, NIEHS Director of Education and Biomedical Research Development Marian Johnson-Thompson, Ph.D.
Oral presentation winner Carleitta Paige pursues her work on anthrax at Wake Forest University on a fellowship from the Department of Homeland Security. Paige entered the competition at the suggestion of her long-distance mentor, NIEHS Director of Education and Biomedical Research Development Marian Johnson-Thompson, Ph.D. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Encouraging the Growth and Development of Young Scientists

A major goal of GEMS is offering students and young scientists an opportunity to learn about areas of current interest with which they may not be very familiar. The meetings also give young investigators an opportunity to network with other scientists and to showcase new research.

Awards to students at the GEMS Fall Meeting included:

  • Best Poster Presentation Awards ($250 each category):
    • Amy McCalla-Martin, doctoral candidate in the College of Veterinary Medicine at North Carolina State University, for "p19Arf Expression in Transient Vasculature Systems of the Developing Mouse," with co-authors Thornton DJ, Mary MN, Skapek SX.
    • Albert R. Wieglus, Ph.D., post-doctoral fellow in the NIEHS Laboratory of Pharmacology and Chemistry Photobiology Workgroup, for "UVA and Visible Light-Induced Cytotoxicity of Fullerol in Human Lens Epithelial Cells," with co-authors Roberts JE, Boyes WK, Andley U, Chignell CF.
  • Best Oral Presentation Award ( 30 November 2007,500 stipend for professional development): Carleitta Paige, doctoral candidate in the Department of Biochemistry at Wake Forest University, for "The Type III Pantothenate Kinase in Bacillus anthracis Is a Likely Candidate for Therapeutic Intervention against Anthrax Infection," with co-authors Reid SD, Hanna P, Claiborne A.
  • 25th Anniversary Presidents Travel Award ( 30 November 2007,800 contribution by presidents of GEMS to support travel to the Environmental Mutagen Society 2008 Meeting in Puerto Rico):
    • Dana Dolinoy, Ph.D., post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Radiation Oncology at Duke University.
    • Michele LaMerrill, curriculum in Toxicology in the Department of Genetics, Center for Environmental and Health Susceptibility at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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