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   from the issue of January 10, 2008

$9M grant enhances EPSCOR research


Nebraska's Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research has received a three-year, $9 million grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct research to better understand gene expression and regulation.

The new Nano-enhanced Epigenetics Research project will build Nebraska's research capabilities on chromatin - a dynamic network of interacting DNA, RNA and protein in the nuclei of cells.

Two UNL researchers will head teams of 15 other biological and biomedical scientists and engineers who will collaborate to create a research niche for Nebraska in epigenetics research, which is the study of changes in inherited gene functions not associated with changes in DNA sequences.

The $9 million Research Infrastructure Improvement grant will enhance computing capacity and resources to develop gene networking and systems biology databases; fund development and testing of nanoresearch techniques and devices to study chromatin; acquire an environmental scanning microscope, and develop and enhance interdisciplinary collaboration and student education and research.

Directing the project is F. Fred Choobineh, head of Nebraska EPSCoR, which is headquartered at UNL. The grant includes cooperation and collaboration among UNL, the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Creighton University.

"This kind of grant funds the type of research that represents the future of 'big science,' work that is collaborative in nature, crosses disciplines and in this case, helps answer fundamental questions about the nature of complex genetics at the cellular level," said Harvey Perlman, UNL chancellor. "Building on the strength we have at the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources and on City Campus, this grant helps UNL remain the nation's leader in transgenic crop testing and builds faculty and infrastructure that can support the future development of agriculture and other industries."

Choobineh said Nebraska has research strengths in areas that provide opportunities to pursue new, large-scale systems biology research focused on chromatin function, structure and targeted manipulation. The grant will support research to better understand global gene regulatory processes that define a species, its variegated cell types and its responses to environmental stimuli.

UNL faculty coordinating the research are plant scientist Sally Mackenzie, the Ralph and Alice Raikes professor in horticulture and agronomy, and engineer Joseph A. Turner, chair and professor of engineering mechanics.

Mackenzie, who coordinates the chromatin team, said the research will improve understanding of the cellular context in which genes are expressed.

"We understand how individual genes might influence particular features, such as eye color or predisposition to disease, but we don't fully understand how suites of genes are coordinated to influence processes of development or an organism's response to its environment," Mackenzie said. "Understanding these complex genetic processes could help us, for example, to enhance a plant's ability to adapt to environmental changes or to influence an animal's aging process."

Turner will coordinate the engineering team.

"The project's engineering aspects are focused on understanding the force-displacement behavior of plant and mammalian cell walls to design a nanodevice that can insert short strings of RNA into plant and mammalian cells in a reliable manner," Turner said. "We need a clear understanding of the penetration process, the development of new methods of insertion via nanofiber manufacturing and integration of the two for building functioning nanodevices."

EPSCoR assists Nebraska educational institutions in enhancing their science, technology, engineering, mathematics and biomedical research; helps educational infrastructures increase research and development competitiveness; and fosters economic development through support of technology transfer.

Since 1991, Nebraska institutions have attracted more than $180 million in EPSCoR funds to support research in four general clusters - science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

"This NSF grant for our EPSCoR program is an exciting opportunity for Nebraska to continue building its research capacity and enhancing our collaborative culture," said Prem Paul, UNL vice chancellor for research. "Strong multidisciplinary collaboration is essential to addressing complex problems and that's what this project is all about. In the long run, discoveries from this work could translate into economic development opportunities for Nebraska."



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