University of Connecticut researcher Brenton Graveley has just won a $9.3 million federal grant to study how the human genome works.
Not bad, considering he became a biologist by mistake.
Graveley intended to become a journalist years ago when he entered the University of Colorado, but he couldn’t get into any journalism classes because they were full.
Looking for an elective, he decided to sign up for marine biology. But he accidently wrote the wrong course number on the selection sheet and ended up in a molecular biology class.
It was a happy accident.
“I just immediately fell in love with it. It’s this fascinating world of stuff that I never knew existed before,” he said. “It was interesting to me that you could study things you couldn’t even see with the naked eye.”
Fast forward 25 years.
Graveley now sits on the cutting edge of genome research, trying to figure out how to read human genetic code.
Graveley will use the $9.3 million grant — one of the largest ever for the UConn Health Center — to try to figure out what parts of the human genome do what.
The project, called the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements, aims to map out the function of every piece of DNA in the genome. Graveley’s group is one of seven across the United States working on various parts of the $30 million project funded by the National Institutes of Health.
All their discoveries will be posted online in a free, public encyclopedia that will serve as sort of a Google Map of all the functional elements of the human genome. Researchers — and the general public — around the world will able to use the free databases immediately to gain insight into the human genome.
Graveley and his team will focus on figuring out where proteins bind to RNA sites and figure out what they do. They believe the proteins serve as switches to turn various pieces of RNA on and off.
“The goal is that by identifying what all the proteins are doing, it will help us understand basic biology, but also give us insight into human health and diseases,” Graveley said.
When the proteins mutate they can cause human disease, such as neurologic disorders or cancer, he said. Understanding their function could one day allow doctors to pinpoint a problem and find a tailor-made medicine to treat it.
Basically, the experiment will involve growing human cells in a dish and removing an RNA-binding protein. By the process of elimination, the researchers hope to figure out the protein’s role.
The experiment also involves a lot of computational science. Graveley will write computer code, then take the data generated in the lab and do some experiments to make sense of it using a cluster of computers 500 times more powerful than the typical laptop.
Graveley, 43, is principal investigator on the project, partnering with Xiang-Gong Fu and Eugene Yeo at the University of California-San Diego and Chris Burge at MIT.
Mike Pazin, one of the program directors in functional genomics on the ENCODE project at the NIH, said Graveley is recognized as an expert on RNA-binding proteins
“He’s one of the top people in the field and he’s brought in other top people in the field,” Pazin said. “We have confidence this team will make a lot of progress on this problem.”
The grant builds upon the state’s efforts to become a bioscience hub, recently bolstered by $291 million in state funds to help to bring the Maine-based Jackson Laboratory to Farmington.
Between UConn, Yale and the arrival of Jackson labs, “we’re starting to develop a critical mass for genomics in the state and it’s definitely becoming one of the leaders,” Graveley said.
Graveley, who has pierced ears and wears socks with Birkenstocks, grew up in Colorado. After college in Boulder, he came east to go to graduate school at the University of Vermont. He then became a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard, working with Tom Maniatis, who is known as the father of molecular biology, Graveley said.
Gravely has been at UConn for 13 years and is now a professor of Genetics and Developmental Biology. And he has never regretted his accidental foray into the field.
“I’ve always been fascinated with figuring out how life works. It’s been a good career. You can basically get paid to figure out what you want to figure out,” he said.