The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has selected Emory biochemist Xiaodong Cheng, PhD, to participate in its Roadmap Epigenomics program -- a broad initiative aimed at accelerating this emerging field of biomedical research. Cheng is professor of biochemistry at Emory University School of Medicine and a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar.
Epigenetics is the study of how cells control gene expression by adding chemical modifications to DNA and their associated proteins, called histones. These modifications control genetic activity by changing the structure of chromosomes and can affect gene expression as greatly as changes in the DNA sequence.
Researchers believe that understanding how and when epigenetic processes control genes during different stages of development and throughout life will lead to more effective ways to prevent and treat disease.
Cheng is an expert in studying the epigenetic process of methylation, a chemical modification that appears on DNA and proteins and influences whether genes are turned on or off. Scientists used to think methylation appeared only on DNA molecules or on histones (proteins that bundle DNA into spool-like packages). More recently, Cheng and his colleagues have discovered examples of methylation modulating the activity of proteins such as the estrogen receptor, which controls a cell's response to the hormone estrogen. See related press release.
A two-year, $350,000 award by the Roadmap Epigenomics program will support Cheng's work with a new technique called SPOT peptide arrays, examining the enzymes that carry out methylation and identifying other proteins affected by it. See related press release.
Cheng says that epigenetics can help explain how diet and exposure to environmental chemicals influence our health and those of our children.
"It is clear that epigenetics plays a prominent role in how the experiences of a fetus later influence the health of the adult and the transgenerational effects seen on fertility and obesity," he says.
Cheng's award is one of seven in the "Discovery of Novel Epigenetic Marks" area of the NIH Roadmap Epigenomics program.
More about the Epigenomics Roadmap awards: http://www.nih.gov/news/health/sep2008/od-29.htm
The NIH Roadmap for Medical Research, launched in 2004, is a series of initiatives designed to address fundamental knowledge gaps, develop transformative tools and technologies, and/or foster innovative approaches to complex problems.