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Duluth scientists are on cutting edge of disease and genome research

Scientists in Duluth are on the cutting edge of discovering important players in what causes disease. Annette Bowman, in the department of microbiology at the UMD School of Medicine, is hot on the trail of what makes a cell function properly. Onc...

Scientists in Duluth are on the cutting edge of discovering important players in what causes disease. Annette Bowman, in the department of microbiology at the UMD School of Medicine, is hot on the trail of what makes a cell function properly. Once that is learned, figuring out what happens to cause malfunction and disease will be the next step.
Bowman and scientists like her are very excited about the completion of the human genome sequence. "The big accomplishment was to sequence the entire set of DNA that's in every cell," Bowman said. "What's to come and what's really going to impact the general public is what all of that information encodes, and that we don't really know yet. It's a big step, but it's a big first step."
Bowman and scientists like her are working to figure out how the parts of the cell work together. With the genome sequence complete, they now have a list of parts and the order they go in inside the nucleus of a cell, but no understanding of how that cell actually works. Bowman is studying proteins, the functioning parts, in the cell. "We have a big black box picture that it works," she said. "But we don't know how it works. We don't know how it goes wrong. We don't know how the proteins interact with each other, how they're targeted to the right place and go there at the right time," she said.
The genome map is a huge step toward understanding how cells work, but Bowman says there's a whole world of information yet to be gleaned from genetic research. "The big advances that are going to occur in medicine will be the ability to design tools to combat specific diseases," said Bowman. "Now that we know all this DNA encodes for something, we're going to be able to find when it encodes for the wrong thing that might lead to disease.
Specifically, Bowman is studying yeast cells because much of the way a yeast cell functions is similar to how a human cell functions. Also, studying a simpler organism can make the job a lot easier. We can learn a lot from these simpler organisms because all of those components are present in a mammalian organism," she said.
The yeast genome was sequenced five years ago. It has 6,000 genes while the human genome has 80,000 genes.
Bowman is one of the country's leading experts on proteins within a cell. Proteins are the functioning part of a cell. Earlier this year she discovered a new family of proteins and part of what their role is in the cell. She published her findings at the same time as two other scientists from other parts of the world who also discovered the proteins but through different means, each scientist corroborating the other's research. Bowman's exciting findings and those of the other scientists were written up as "Editor's Choice" in Science, a well known and highly prestigious trade publication.
Bowman will be attending a meeting in Colorado this week to talk about her research and share her findings with other scientists doing similar research. "We all discuss our work and share what we've found," she said.
Because proteins are the functioning part of a cell, they are the key to figuring out how a cell malfunctions. Bowman is mapping out how proteins move within a cell and studying why they move, how they know where to go and when to go there. The research could have big ramifications in the field of cancer research.
"There are a lot of things that go on in a cancerous cell that are different from a normal cell," Bowman said. "One of the things that is different is things move faster. And that is odd for things to move faster. The regulation of how things move and where they move to is all going to be involved."
The long-term implications, according to Bowman, is scientists will be able to figure out various diseases are caused by these proteins that can't interact with each other like they're supposed to, or they don't get made in the first place because of something wrong in the DNA. "Having the whole sequence done is a great tool for us because when I find something new, I now know where its DNA is," she said. "I know what it's encoded by, I know what it's next to. I know the controlling elements that are next to it."
Not very long ago it would have taken months of work to find that out, now she can do it in an afternoon.
Because scientists in Duluth and all around the world have the benefits of a completed genome, Bowman expects advances in genetic research to escalate rapidly. "Everyone in the medical school who is doing research is going to be impacted by the genome research," Bowman said.
"We are all affected by the genome project, and we're doing work that will impact what's known and what's done with the genomic information. We, in Duluth, are doing work to advance the whole field of biology and the understanding of how the human body works. We fit in as part of the work that's going on all around the world."

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