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Mapping heredity

Elizabeth Vicker, senior molecular biology major and Provost Fellow, is fascinated with something that she can’t even see–with the naked eye that is. She is spending her summer studying genes, the molecular units of heredity that determine everything in our bodies.

“Without genes, transcription, and translation, we would have no proteins and nothing would function correctly,” she says.

Aside from keeping us functioning properly, understanding genes plays a big role in finding out how diseases like cancer develop. Vicker is hoping that her research can help understand that process. But first things first: for now she is growing DNA in bacteria and sending it out to be sequenced.

Though she admits it is a bit “boring,” these small tasks actually help map out DNA. The human genome project mapped out the majority of the human gene, but certain small sections were not completed because these sections do not have the capability to code protein, which is where mutations that lead to diseases can occur.¬† However, in years since, researchers have found that even non-protein coding genes can affect whether a mutation can occur. Now, researchers like Vicker are assisting in furthering the human genome project by finishing these sections, and seeing if they can provide further insight into how diseases develop.

“When the cell becomes cancerous a lot of the times it is uncontrolled transcription and translation in cell duplicating genes,” she says. “You are looking for trends and looking to see if some things are different.”

This makes Vicker’s summer research tri-fold: first, she is sequencing these smaller chromosomes, then she is looking to see if the histones (the proteins that order DNA) are transcriptionally active, and finally she is comparing the healthy genes to cancerous genes to see if there is a correlation between transcriptionally active histones and the development of cancer.

A little confused? Vicker describes sequencing and searching for patterns like putting words together.

“In the alphabet, there are 26 letters and the different ways you put them together make different words. Same with nucleotides [which make up DNA and RNA], but the different ways you put them together make different proteins,” she says. “We are looking for patterns.”

Vicker first became interested in genetics when she took a genetics class with biology professor Jeffrey Doering, PhD. She hopes to one day work as either a doctor or a researcher in genetics. Ultimately, she says this research is a stepping stone to that goal.

“I hope that through this research I’ll be able to learn valuable lab techniques that I will be able to apply in the future, as well as a greater grasp of the ever-changing world that is genetics,” she says. “It’s very interesting to see and to learn how problems are solved in the lab, and how we make things as small as genes understandable.”

This summer we will be profiling several Provost Fellows. The Provost Fellows are undergraduate students who either are interested in doing their own research with the help of a faculty member or wish to assist a faculty member with their research. They apply to the program with an outline for research, including a project description, budget, and faculty letter from the person who will be a part of the project. If they are accepted into the program, they receive a $1,000 stipend to complete their research. Their findings are then presented at the Undergraduate Research Symposium in the spring. To find out more about the program, visit the website here.

  • By Dan Harris on 8.6.2012 at 11:30 am

    Great project and Great professor. As a “Doering lab” graduate I can say that he is truly an inspiring professor and scientist.