December 21, 2009
Scientific advances in areas as diverse as medicine and agriculture often require finding specific snippets of DNA within an organism's vast genetic information — and University of Nebraska-Lincoln biologist Etsuko Moriyama is working to develop tools to locate them.
Recent sequencing of many organisms' genomes, including humans, offers crucial and nearly unlimited genetic data. Researchers use the information to treat human diseases, improve crop performance and better understand evolution, among many other pursuits. They often start with identifying proteins of interest. From there, researchers must find the fragments of DNA sequences that encode the protein, an often difficult next step in solving biological questions.
The problem is "the sheer volume of information," Moriyama said. So she's developing valuable bioinformatics tools to mine DNA sequences for proteins. She recently received $95,017 from the National Institutes of Health National Library of Medicine through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to further this research.
Researchers today often look for proteins by comparing known protein sequences of one species with sequences from the species of interest. But this "alignment" technique often fails.
For example, Moriyama studies how G protein-coupled receptors — proteins involved in the senses such as sight and smell — function and malfunction in diseases. When Moriyama looked for proteins that insects use for smell, she discovered their olfactory receptors are too different from mammalian receptors and often too different from each other to help find the proteins.
She began developing more sensitive techniques researchers can use to more quickly and accurately narrow the field of possible sequences. These techniques require lots of computing muscle and human brainpower. ARRA funding allowed Moriyama to hire a postdoctoral fellow to help analyze the data and identify the best protein mining strategies. She also was able to retain an undergraduate student to begin looking at how the proteins she's already uncovered function as a system.
ARRA funding also allowed Moriyama, a faculty member in the Center for Plant Science Innovation and the School of Biological Sciences, to ramp up her computing power with additional equipment purchased from a U.S. company.
"We can now work faster and do more analysis," she said. "The larger capacity also allowed us to begin setting up a Web server so that people outside of our lab can also use our system."
For researchers worldwide, Moriyama's efforts to expand access to this new information may lead to solutions for diseases and discovering new products more quickly.
The federal ARRA legislation is designed to invest in science, technology and engineering research and infrastructure to stimulate the nation's economy and bolster research capacity. ARRA funding is received through competitive grants from federal agencies.
This article originally appeared on the University of Nebraska–Lincoln website. Reposted with permission.