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GEMS holds 28th annual fall meeting

By Thaddeus Schug
November 2010

left to right, Sam Suarez and Jana Stone, Ph.D.
North Carolina State University graduate student, Sam Suarez, spoke with NIEHS postdoctoral fellow Jana Stone, Ph.D., about her research on DNA damage caused by UV radiation. The poster session offered trainees and junior investigators additional opportunities to share their research with colleagues. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Piotr Mieczkowski, Ph.D., left, and Ian Davis, M.D., Ph.D.
Mieczkowski, left, and Davis, who were featured speakers in the morning session, took a break for refreshments. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Jack Keene, a James B. Duke Professor at Duke University
Keene has made use of gene sequencing for several important discoveries in RNA stability and translation. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

GEMS President-elect Steve Little, right, and Steven Roberts, Ph.D.
Little, right, posed with NIEHS postdoctoral fellow Steven Roberts, Ph.D., who was winner of the best oral presentation. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

The Genetics and Environmental Mutagenesis Society (GEMS) held its annual meeting Oct. 15 at the Sheraton Imperial Hotel and Convention Center in Research Triangle Park, N.C. The theme of this year's meeting was "Deep Sequencing, Regulation, and Cancer." There were nine poster presentations and five talks by talented students, trainees, and junior investigators competing for awards (see text box).

The meeting opened with introductory remarks by GEMS President John E. French, Ph.D., an NIEHS staff scientist and acting chief of the National Toxicology Program Host Susceptibility Branch. The agenda featured an afternoon of invited lectures on the development of new sequencing methodologies in genetics, and the information these new technologies reveal in molecular and cancer biology.

Moderating the meeting was GEMS President-elect Steve Little, a chemist and acting quality assurance manager with the National Center for Computational Toxicology at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Little began his presentation by noting that "the deep sequencing in the title [of the meeting] refers to the multiple layers of genetic information, as well as the complete sequence information that is afforded by the newly developing high throughput technologies." He pointed out that whole genome sequencing may reveal clues to understanding the regulation of dynamic biological processes, such as cancer and developmental biology.

Assistant professor and director of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) High Throughput Sequencing Facility Piotr Mieczkowski, Ph.D., gave the meeting's first keynote talk on "Next Generation Sequencing Tools." "I will not be talking about science, I will be talking about technology," said Mieczkowski, as he highlighted the rapid development of the next generation of sequencing tools. He noted that the newly emerging sequencing platforms allow investigators significantly more coverage of the genome, at a fraction of the original cost.

The next talk featured UNC School of Medicine assistant professor Ian Davis, M.D., Ph.D., who spoke on "Whole Genome Analysis of Transcriptional Regulation of Cancer." Davis explained how he has applied the functional aspects of genomic technologies to unravel the genetic mechanisms associated with a highly malignant form of cancer called Ewing sarcoma.

Davis explained that Ewing sarcoma is caused by an aberrant chromosomal translocation that results in the formation of an oncogenic fused gene. He employs genome-wide analysis to study transcription and regulation of the hybrid gene. "Through the identification of oncogenic transcriptional mechanisms and relevant transcriptional targets, we hope to develop novel biologically-based therapies for these cancers," said Davis.

The meeting's final invited speaker was Jack Keene, a James B. Duke Professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at Duke University, whose talk was titled, "Whole Genome Analysis of Transcription Regulation and Cancer." Keene, who also chairs the NIEHS Board of Scientific Counselors, began his talk with an overview of his work that lead to the proposal of a new model of gene expression in eukaryotic cells that is based upon the regulation of RNA transcription by specific binding proteins (RBPs).

Keene went on to explain that, although RBPs appear to coordinate many key decisions during cell growth and differentiation, the dynamic changes during RNA translation are challenging to understand. Keene is currently using quantitative probability methods to predict RNA dynamics. He said, "The hope is that we can use these methods to quantify gene-disease phenotypes that can be used to identify small molecule drugs to target regulatory networks."

(Thaddeus Schug, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral research fellow in the NIEHS Laboratory of Signal Transduction and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor. He is currently on detail as a program analyst in the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training.)

GEMS winners

GEMS devoted more than half of its annual fall meeting toward showcasing the research accomplishments of young scientists. Winners typically use their grants for attending professional meetings.

Best Poster Presentation Awards ($250 each):

  • Student Winner: Chris Sproul, "Mechanisms Underlying Sunlight-Induced Skin Carcinogenesis." Sproul is a doctoral student in the UNC Toxicology program.
  • Technician Winner: Lisa Smeester, "Altered DNA Methylation Patterns in Individuals with Arsenicosis." Smeester is a technician in the lab of Rebecca Fry at UNC.
  • Postdoctoral Winner: Amy Abdulovic, Ph.D., "Mechanisms of Mutagenesis in vivo due to Imbalanced dNTP Pools." Abdulovic is a postdoctoral fellow in NIEHS Laboratory of Molecular Genetics DNA Replication Fidelity Group.

Best Oral Presentation Award ($1500):

  • Steven Roberts, Ph.D., "Localized Hyper-mutability Caused by Chronic Alkylation Damage to a Eukaryotic Genome." Roberts is a postdoctoral fellow in the NIEHS Laboratory of Molecular Genomics Chromosome Stability Group.

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