UC Berkeley receives grant for gene-imaging research

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UC Berkeley was one of two institutions recently awarded a five-year joint $4.25 million grant by the National Institute of Health that will give scientists the opportunity to explore the nature of gene regulation.

The grant funds are to be split evenly between UC Berkeley and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, two institutions participating in the study. They will work together to develop new microscopy methods that will allow scientists to study genetic interactions within a single cell.

The microscopes will help scientists trace chemical interactions that regulate a cell’s genes, allowing researchers to better understand the circumstances that contribute to genetic modification — specifically how the genes are turned on and off.

Scientists plan to use the grant to create microscopic imaging techniques that can depict a cell nucleus at high resolution while causing minimal cellular damage, according to lead investigator Robert Singer, a professor at Albert Einstein College.

According to Singer, microscopes typically emit wavelengths that can cause damage to the cell under examination, including mutated genetic material. In order for studies on cellular processes to reflect normal conditions within a cell, the team aims to reduce light intensity in the new microscopes.

UC Berkeley researchers will specifically develop new microscopy methods to study stem cells, while the Albert Einstein College researchers will focus on techniques for studying cells in native environments. In addition, UC Berkeley, in collaboration with other groups, will use the funds to develop three microscopes that can eventually produce three-dimensional models of molecules.

Scientists currently study genetic processes by growing cells in cultures or removing genetic material from cells altogether, but Singer argues that cells are best studied in their natural environment because they can receive signals when removed, resulting in genetic modification. For example, if two cells receive varied oxygen amounts in different parts of the cell, they will not express certain genes in the same way.

By tracing chemical interactions that genetically modify a cell using fluorescent dyes — a molecular labeling technique that helps locate biological material based on the light the tags emit — researchers can better locate cells to look at under their microscopes.

Xavier Darzacq, the lead project researcher at UC Berkeley, said his research team became involved in the project because it was among the first to develop single-molecule imaging, a process that identifies the molecules used to transcribe genes and shows molecules’ 3-D structures.

The techniques prior to single molecule imaging were very limited because genetic material could not be imaged through the nucleus.

“(It’s necessary to) understand that the nucleus isn’t just a place where you put things,” Darzacq said. “The place of the gene is as important as its sequence in how it’s going to be expressed.”

Singer believes the development of new microscopes will open up new opportunities for studying cell processes.

Contact Alok Narahari and Kimberly Nielsen at [email protected].