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New Marsden funding to probe the science of how genes awaken

Tuesday 8 November 2016

New Marsden funding to probe the science of how genes awaken

University of Otago and University of Auckland researchers are collaborating to gain new insights into the very beginnings of life, following the recent awarding of a major Marsden Fund grant.

The researchers will use cutting edge genomic techniques to study how a zygote - the cell that forms from the union of sperm and egg – activates its newly minted genome and becomes the master of its own genetic destiny.

Co-principal investigator Associate Professor Julia Horsfield of the University of Otago says that when a zygote forms, its brand new genome is kept mostly inactive at first.

“However, at a defined time-point, the zygotic genome becomes active and is transcribed – its genes are switched on. At this crucial time, the embryo becomes master of its own destiny.”

Associate Professor Horsfield and her co-principal investigator Dr Justin O’Sullivan, of the University of Auckland, will test their theory that a special 3D structure forms in the cell’s nucleus and permits transcription to occur and triggers genome activation.

Dr O’Sullivan says the team will use sophisticated genomics techniques that can probe nuclear structures in zebrafish embryos. The researchers will also use live imaging of zebrafish embryos and individual cells as they undergo genome activation to look at visible changes in the nucleus as genes are switched on.

“As well as aiming to discover the nuclear structure that triggers genome activation, we hope to disrupt the structure to determine how important it is for gene activation,” he says.

Establishing how the zygotic genome is at first held inactive, and how it rapidly becomes activated, will provide new insight into the earliest stages of life, he says.

Associate Professor Horsfield says she is delighted by the $810,000 in Marsden funding, which will also enable a new collaboration with the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany.

“It will bring our far-flung team together to tackle one of the biggest enigmas in biology – how an individual expresses its genetic identity for the first time,” she says.


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