Sergei Nechaev, assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences at UND’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), has received the first installment on a five-year award worth $1.25 million for a project entitled “CAREER: Organization of Global Transcriptomes by Stepwise control of POL II activity at gene promoters.” The grant was awarded by the National Science Foundation.
According to Nechaev, despite decades of cutting-edge research, the question of how the activity of genes is organized into specific patterns, called transcriptomes, that give rise to all possible cell types in the organism remains unanswered.
“This issue is important not only for health researchers,” Nechaev said, “but any scientist exploring the fundamental questions about how simpler components—whether genes, neurons, or human-designed switches—can drive highly complex processes that include cell differentiation, brain organization, and possibly artificial intelligence.”
According to Nechaev, the new grant focuses on how the human genome can “encode” stable patterns of gene expression by exploring a poorly understood process called “Pol II pausing.” The goal of the project supported by the grant is to determine how proteins involved in the control of Pol II pausing regulate transcription of genes genome-wide. By the end of the grant, the laboratory hopes to understand better how genes organize into networks. Expanding the grant’s impact is the fact that high school, undergraduate, and graduate students will have the opportunity to engage in cutting edge research at the SMHS that combines molecular biology, bioinformatics, and mathematical modeling.
Nechaev conducts research in epigenetics. Researchers studying epigenetics explore the mechanisms that regulate gene expression and the activation and deactivation of specific genes. Understanding better how the human body can turn genes on and off during growth, aging, and in response to its environment has important implications for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, and diabetes.