The year 2022 marked 50 years since the creation of the NIGMS Human Genetic Cell Repository (HGCR) at the Coriell Institute for Medical Research in Camden, New Jersey. The NIGMS HGCR consists of cell lines and DNA samples with a focus on those from people with rare, heritable diseases. “Many rare diseases now have treatments because of the samples in the NIGMS HGCR,” says Nahid Turan, Ph.D., Coriell’s chief biobanking officer and co-principal investigator of the NIGMS HGCR. She gives the example of a rare disease advocacy group who worked with the NIGMS HGCR to establish a cell line several decades ago. It was used to identify a gene associated with the disease, which aided in the development of five treatments that have received approval from the Food and Drug Administration.
Researchers have also studied NIGMS HGCR’s samples to help advance knowledge of basic biology and genetics, and even to support the development of a vaccine for a deadly virus.
American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) populations have long experienced health disparities such as higher rates of diabetes, certain cancers, and mental health conditions than those of other Americans. One contributing factor in these disparities is underrepresentation of AI/AN populations in biomedical science—as study participants, researchers, and health professionals. Unfamiliarity with health care options and opportunities, coupled with a distrust of biomedical research resulting from unethical studies in the past, have exacerbated this underrepresentation.
NIGMS-supported researchers, including Native scientists, are partnering with AI/AN Tribes to help reduce health disparities by conducting research focused on AI/AN health priorities and building infrastructure that supports research in those communities. They’re also preparing Native students to pursue careers in science and medicine. In this post, you’ll meet four scientists advancing AI/AN health.
“DNA is an amazingly beautiful molecule, and it’s so important. Each of our cells has only one copy of DNA, and if it gets damaged, that messes up everything else in the cell,” says Alexis Komor, Ph.D., an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). Check out the highlights of our interview with Dr. Komor to learn about her scientific journey, research on DNA, and advice for students.
Q: How did you decide to study chemistry?
A: I really enjoyed math and science in middle and high school. When I applied to college, I knew I wanted to major in science over math because I felt like it was more relevant to what we experience on a day-to-day basis. I ultimately went into chemistry for a silly reason, but looking back now, I’m so very grateful that I did. Chemistry has this nice balance because it allows you to not only understand how things work on a molecular level but also see how those molecular workings relate to everyday phenomena—for example, understanding how DNA damage on a molecular level can lead to negative health outcomes.
Over the past 2 years, you’ve probably heard a lot about the spread of SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—and the emergence of variants. The discovery and tracking of these variants is possible thanks to genomic surveillance, a technique that involves sequencing and analyzing the genomes of SARS-CoV-2 virus particles from many COVID-19 patients. Genomic surveillance has not only shed light on how SARS-CoV-2 has evolved and spread, but it has also helped public health officials decide when to introduce measures to help protect people.
In December 2021, the NIGMS-supported SARS-CoV-2 genomic surveillance program at the University of New Mexico Health Science Center (UNM HSC) in Albuquerque detected the first known case of the Omicron variant in the state, which enabled a rapid public health response. The program’s co-leaders, assistant professors Darrell Dinwiddie, Ph.D., and Daryl Domman, Ph.D., were watching on high alert for it to enter New Mexico, and when it did, they were poised to quickly identify it:
Genes are segments of DNA. They contain instructions for building one or more molecules that help the body work. Researchers in the field of genetics study genes and heredity—how certain traits are passed from parents to their offspring through DNA. NIGMS supports many scientists who investigate the genetics of people and research organisms to better understand human health and disease.
Take our quiz below to test how much you know about genetics. Then check out our new fact sheet on genetics to learn more. For more quizzes and other fun learning tools, visit our activities and multimedia webpage.
As computers have advanced over the past few decades, researchers have been able to work with larger and more complex datasets than ever before. The science of using computers to investigate biological data is called bioinformatics, and it’s helping scientists make important discoveries, such as finding versions of genes that affect a person’s risk for developing various types of cancer. Many scientists believe that almost all biologists will use bioinformatics to some degree in the future.
However, bioinformatics isn’t always included in college biology programs, and many of today’s researchers received their training before bioinformatics was widely taught. To address these gaps, the bioinformatics cores of the five Northeast IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBREs)—located in Maine, Rhode Island, Delaware, Vermont, and New Hampshire—have worked together to offer basic bioinformatics training to students and researchers. The collaboration started in 2009 with a project where researchers sequenced the genome of a fish called the little skate (Leucoraja erinacea) and used the data to develop trainings.
Sudden changes to our schedules, like the end of daylight saving time this Sunday or flying across time zones, often leave us feeling off kilter because they disrupt our bodies’ circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms are physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a daily cycle. When these “biological clocks” are disrupted, our bodies eventually readjust. However, some people have conditions that cause their circadian rhythms to be permanently out of sync with their surroundings.
Sohini Ramachandran, Brown University. Credit: Danish Saroee/Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study.
Recent advances in computing enable researchers to explore the life sciences in ways that would have been impossible a few decades ago. One new tool is the ability to sequence genomes, revealing people’s full DNA blueprints. The collection of more and more genetic data allows researchers to compare the DNA of many people and observe variations, including those shared by people with a common ancestry.
Sohini Ramachandran , Ph.D., is director of the Center for Computational Molecular Biology and associate professor of biology and computer science at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. She is also a recent recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). Dr. Ramachandran researches the causes and consequences of human genetic variations using computer models. Starting with genomic data from living people, her lab applies statistical methods, mathematical modeling, and computer simulations to discover how human populations moved and changed genetically over time.
Historically, crowdsourcing has played an important role in certain fields of scientific research. Wildlife biologists often rely on members of the public to monitor animal populations. Using backyard telescopes, amateur astronomers provide images and measurements that lead to important discoveries about the universe. And many meteorologists use data collected by citizen scientists to study weather conditions and patterns.
Now, thanks largely to advances in computing, researchers in computational biology and data science are harnessing the power of the masses and making discoveries that provide valuable insights into human health.
Over the past 12 months, we’ve explored a variety of topics in genetics, cell biology, chemistry, and careers in the biomedical sciences. As we ring in the new year, we bring you our top three posts of 2019. If your favorite is missing, let us know what it is in the comments section below!
Hawaiian bobtail squid. Credit: Dr. Satoshi Shibata.
Studying research organisms, such as those featured in this post, teaches us about ourselves. These amazing creatures, which have some traits similar to our own, may hold the key to preventing and treating an array of complex diseases.