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Excellence in Genomics Research

From understanding more about how certain bacteria benefit humans to exploring unexpected causes of cancer, the Institute for Genome Sciences (IGS) is involved in a range of cutting edge research in a wide variety of areas. IGS focuses on research involving the genome – the complete set of genetic material of a given organism – in everything from bacteria to humans. Recently, IGS has received several large grants, and using genomics to better understand disease in newborns.

Claire M. Fraser, PhDLed by Claire M. Fraser, PhD, a pioneer in the genomics field, together with Owen White, PhD, and Jacques Ravel, PhD, the IGS is home to a team of world-renowned investigators. The IGS was founded a decade ago to better understand the genomics revolution that is transforming medicine and bioscience.  Dr. Fraser and her colleagues are harnessing the power and potential of large-scale genomic research, and exploring new genomic applications in precision medicine, therapeutics, infectious diseases, virology and cancer research. In addition, they are collaborating with academic researchers, as well as private industry, to create new paradigms for addressing health and medical challenges.

Genomics – the study of genetic material in organisms – succeeds by generating, analyzing and integrating vast amounts of DNA and RNA sequence data. Using state-of-the-art technology and broad scientific expertise, IGS investigators are accelerating the process of unraveling nature’s secrets to improve health. They are partnering with leading scientific experts across many disciplines, and are working to translate genomic data into novel therapeutics and health management strategies.

IGS has two centers, the Genomics Resource Center (GRC) and the Informatics Resource Center (IRC), which work with IGS faculty and their collaborators to develop programs to sequence genomes and interpret the data.

IGS is a global leader in developing new tools to analyze genomic data. In fact, it establishes many industry standards for such information.

Among those doing innovative work is Dr. Fraser herself.  Dr. Fraser published a paper showing a possible mechanism for how a common probiotic bacterium helps foster human gut health. The strain of bacteria, called Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG (LGG), is a component of many popular probiotic products. It has a reputation as a helpful microbe: researchers have found evidence that it can help with intestinal problems, respiratory infections and some skin disorders. Fraser and her team found that LGG may act as a facilitator, modifying the activity of other gut bacteria. This is the first time this mechanism has been described; the discovery could eventually help scientists create more effective strategies to foster a healthy gut.

Julie Hotopp, PhDIGS scientists are also working on possible links between bacteria and human cancer. Julie Hotopp, PhD, Associate Professor of Microbiology and Immunology, is leading an innovative research program to investigate lateral gene transfer (LGT) – the transmission of genetic material between organisms in the absence of sexual reproduction. She has found evidence that bacteria may transfer genes to human cells. This material is more likely to become part of tumor cells than normal cells. This phenomenon might play a role in the development of cancer and other diseases associated with DNA damage.

Timothy D. O'Connor, PhDScientists at the Institute are also working in more patient-focused areas. Timothy D. O'Connor, PhD, Assistant Professor of Medicine at IGS, has helped to develop a way to quickly search for a wide array of genetic abnormalities in infants. This method will allow doctors and families to quickly narrow down possible genetic illnesses in certain affected newborns. Previously this process would take months; with this new approach it takes days.

Overall, IGS comprises more than 20 faculty members who are global leaders in their fields. These study areas include the following:

Systems Biology: the analysis of complex biological networks. By integrating genomics, biology, medicine, computational biology and mathematics, systems biology can provide comprehensive understanding of how organisms work, and a deeper knowledge of diseases and disease-host interactions.  

Microbiome Science: the examination of the genomic makeup of large microbial communities.
Human survival depends on the trillions of microbes that inhabit our bodies. In a healthy person, those bacteria, fungi and viruses - the human microbiota - are well balanced. But shifts in the makeup and function of those populations can lead to diseases.

Cancer Genomics: Scientists are beginning to survey and catalog the genomic changes associated with types of cancer. Discovering the landscape of genetic alterations in cancer is helping provide a foundation for understanding the molecular basis of this group of diseases.

Infectious Diseases: Genomic sequencing gives researchers the tools to examine a pathogen’s genetic blueprint, and as a result, to develop novel strategies to prevent and cure infectious diseases.

Population and Evolutionary Genomics:  By studying host-microbe interactions, the evolution of microbes and microbial communities, researchers can better understand susceptibility to disease and how harmless microbes can become deadly given the right circumstances. We can also apply this knowledge to disease outbreaks.