GEMS meeting focuses on genomics data and risk assessment
By Ernie Hood
The Genetics and Environmental Mutagenesis Society (GEMS) held its 32nd annual fall meeting Oct. 22 at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.
The theme for this year’s meeting, which was supported in part by grants from NIEHS, was “Innovations and Integration of Genomics Data to Advance Risk Assessment.”
Channa Keshava, Ph.D., GEMS president-elect and senior scientist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), organized the conference and moderated the presentations. “Science is advancing so fast and we have so much more to explore to understand the whole genome. It’s really exciting to hear about the latest advances and the latest technology,” he said. “With EPA, NIEHS, and all of the industries here in the Triangle, this is a great place to organize a local meeting to share this knowledge and the latest information in the field.”
Keshava emphasized that, in addition to serving as a resource for local professionals, the society designs the meeting to provide an opportunity for young, aspiring scientists — graduate students, undergraduates, and high school students — to present to, and interact with, more seasoned scientists.
Speak locally, think globally
The four talks from senior scientists, featured at the meeting, illustrated the world-class research being conducted in genomics and risk assessment in the Triangle area.
Scott Auerbach, Ph.D., a molecular toxicologist in the National Toxicology Program (NTP) Molecular Toxicology and Informatics Group, led off the day’s proceedings with a presentation, “The Application of Toxicogenomic Compendium Data to Forecasting Chemical Effects in Biological Systems.” He described the data, resources, and methods being used in omics-based hazard characterization, and provided several examples of applications of the approach.
NIEHS grantee Rebecca Fry, Ph.D., associate professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, presented results of research suggesting that blocking epigenetic modifications, due to environmental contaminant exposures, may be useful in preventing diseases and birth defects. Her lab concentrates on mechanisms of disease associated with toxic metal exposure early in life, particularly arsenic exposure.
Fred Wright, Ph.D., director of the Bioinformatics Research Center at North Carolina State University (NCSU), spoke about NexGen risk assessment and the prospects for assessing population genetic variation using rapid automated in vitro testing, or assays. Using cytotoxicity studies involving hundreds of cell lines and approximately 180 chemicals, these assays are providing important data for chemical prioritization and establishing benchmarks for average risk due to exposure.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) systems biologist Stephen Edwards, Ph.D., discussed how the adverse outcome pathway concept provides an ideal framework for bridging the gap between high-throughput screening toxicity testing, such as Tox21 and the adverse outcomes that are typically used in regulatory decision-making.
Attendees also enjoyed four short talks by graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, and 11 poster presentations. Authors of the best short talk and three best posters received awards.
(Ernie Hood is a contract writer with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)