U gets grant for genome mapping

By By Deborah Rafferty

By Deborah Rafferty

U researchers received an $8.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health for a six-year study that will examine the entire genome of the heart in hopes of finding the root causes of heart defects in children.

In general, scientists study one gene at a time, but this new study will examine the entire genome of the heart, something that has never been done before.

This study will turn previous research on its head, said Joseph Yost, a professor of neurobiology and anatomy as well as adjunct professor of pediatrics at the U.

“The first year, all the groups are planning, making sure everything they need is in place,” Yost said.

As one of four centers from around the country that will participate in the study, the U will specifically study zebrafish, a simple organism that has heart development similar to humans. Other centers will ask similar questions by studying the developing heart in mouse models or focusing on heart defects in human families. By studying the different areas, researchers gain a more complete picture of how heart defects are formed, Yost said.

About 22,000 genes are involved in the development of the heart, Yost said. However, none of the genes function alone; each one is connected. Mutations in any of the genes could affect how the heart is developed, Yost said. It is like a spider web or network of genes and having a mutated gene is like cutting one of the threads, he said.

The purpose of this research is to see how changing one area of the genes changes the whole process, he said.

“This program is just starting out,” Yost said. “Long-term, we’d like to know how heart defects are formed in children, which is a major killer in the first year of life.”

Zebrafish were selected for the study because researchers can manipulate the genes more easily and see how those changes affect the development of the heart, Yost said. Also, whenever a study involving genetics is done, researchers have to track the genes through the family. Zebrafish lay 200 eggs a week, which allows researchers to track the genes through many generations in a short amount of time, Yost said.

Unlike mice, which develop inside the mother for the earliest part of development like other mammals, the zebrafish eggs are transparent. Researchers can then watch the heart as it is being formed inside the fish, which gives them greater insight into the whole process of the developing heart, Yost said.

Yost credits funding from Primary Children’s Medical Center Foundation for providing them with the resources, such as assembling a team of qualified researchers and gathering preliminary data, which enabled them to successfully compete for this grant.

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