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Environmental Factor, December 2015

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Genetics society celebrates history and prepares scientists for the future

By Kelly Lenox

Keshava, Heghes, Demarini, and Smith-Roe

From left, Keshava, Hughes, DeMarini, and Smith-Roe celebrated the lifetime achievements of those who helped found the unique organization. “I appreciate the collegiality and friendship that GEMS has helped foster among so many of us,” DeMarini said. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Carole Yauk

Yauk said prenatal exposures should be studied more in regulatory genetic toxicology, because they happen during a highly sensitive developmental window. “Our group is working internationally … towards the long-term objective of developing a stronger regulatory paradigm to identify and assess germ cell mutagens,” she said. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Folami Ideraabdullah

UNC assistant professor Ideraabdullah also works at the UNC Nutrition Research Institute in Kannapolis, North Carolina. Her talk focused on epigenetics as the interface between genetics and the environment in influencing health outcomes. “I’m very interested in the different nutritional requirements of different individuals, and the role of genetics in that,” she said. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

The Genetics and Environmental Mutagenesis Society (GEMS) held its 33rd annual fall meeting, The Impact of Environmental Exposures on Genomic Health Across Generations, Oct. 28 in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. The event looked forward, with trainees presenting posters and talks, as well as back, by honoring two founding members with lifetime achievement awards.

NIEHS and National Toxicology Program (NTP) scientists from across the institute, many of whom have been longtime members of GEMS, participated as invited speakers, poster presenters, and attendees. This year’s president-elect Stephanie Smith-Roe, Ph.D., is a genetic toxicologist in the NTP Biomolecular Screening Branch.

Focus on mutagenesis

One of the inspirations for establishing the society in 1982 was to enable junior scientists who study mutagenesis, or changes to genetic information that result in a mutation, to interact with more seasoned researchers, said Tom Hughes, of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Hughes and David DeMarini, Ph.D., also of EPA, were presented with lifetime achievement awards by Channa Keshava, Ph.D., GEMS president and EPA senior scientist. Among their achievements, Keshava noted DeMarini’s success in attracting early-career scientists, from a variety of organizations, to the society.

As a local society focused on mutagenesis, the group is unique in the United States. “We have academic, industry, and government scientists — a broad spectrum,” Smith-Roe said. In her opening remarks, she underlined the excellence of the local scientific community, citing the high quality of the abstracts submitted by trainees.  

Talks, posters, and awards

Meeting planners invited three senior researchers and an assistant professor to discuss their work (see text box), including Carole Yauk, Ph.D., head of the genomics laboratory for Health Canada. Her long list of achievements includes a 2006 Health Canada Most Promising Scientist award.

Yauk uses next-generation approaches to measure mutagenesis in germ cells, or egg and sperm cells. Each germ cell contains only one set of chromosomes — half the number of chromosomes in somatic cells, or all other cells in the body. Yauk’s findings showed that benzo[a]pyrene, an environmental contaminant, causes germ cell mutagenesis. Exposure produced different kinds of mutations in germ cells than it did in somatic cells, and the mutations suggested that exposure to benzo[a]pyrene could have a significant impact on disease burden in future generations.

Another invited speaker was NIEHS Deputy Director Rick Woychik, Ph.D., who heads the Mammalian Genome Group. His talk examined how repetitive elements, once referred to as junk DNA, or DNA believed to be non-functional, may influence gene expression in a variety of ways.

Talks by the invited speakers were complemented by presentations by four trainees, including two from NIEHS. The Best Talk award went to Jose Zavala, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the EPA National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory. The award provides travel funding to attend the 2016 national meeting of the Environmental Mutagenesis and Genomics Society (EMGS). Smith-Roe noted that his award is partially funded by a generous gift from Hughes and the EMGS Emerging Scientist Award.

Of the dozen or so posters on display, three won cash prizes from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. First place went to NIEHS visiting predoctoral fellow Alisa Suen, who works in the NIEHS Reproductive Medicine Group under Carmen Williams, M.D., Ph.D. Suen is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC).

Zachary Messenger, a graduate student in the North Carolina State University (NCSU) toxicology program, won second place. Third place went to Maureen Pittman, a UNC undergraduate studying environmental sciences and quantitative biology.

  • Rick Woychik

    Woychik noted the abundance of the repetitive elements in the genome, as well as the difficulty of studying them. “I hope to convince you today that if you don’t pay attention to these repetitive elements, you’re potentially missing a major component of the biology within the cell,” he said. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

  • Zavala and Demarini

    Zavala, left, winner of the Best Talk Award, shared a light moment with his mentor, DeMarini. Zavala’s findings suggest that the mutagenic effects of smog are due less to the individual components of smog, such as particulate matter, ozone, and nitrous oxides, and more to the hundreds of products formed when ultraviolet light interacts with those components. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

  • Alisa Suen Talking to attendees

    First place poster prize winner Suen, center, talked with attendees about her findings that indicate uterine expression of the transcription factor SIX1 is a biomarker for exposure and disease. SIX1 may also play a role in the development of uterine cancer in both mice and women. Suen shared her work in September at the National Institutes of Health Research Festival (see related story). (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

  • Doug Bell

    Doug Bell, Ph.D., head of the NIEHS Environmental Genomics Group, took an avid interest in the proceedings. NIEHS fellows Su and Wan, who gave talks, both work in his lab, as does GEMS councilor Michelle Campbell. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

  • Steve McCaw

    NTP toxicologist Kristine Witt, center, talked with retired NTP toxicologist Barbara Shane, Ph.D., left, and Smith-Roe, who said Witt is a dedicated champion of GEMS. Shane is secretary of the Environmental Mutagenesis and Genomics Society. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

  • Steve McCaw

    Chuan Gao, a graduate student at Wake Forest University, conferred with Yauk during a break, in an example of the collaboration between junior and senior researchers that characterizes GEMS. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

  • David Aylor, woychik, jef French

    NCSU assistant professor David Aylor, Ph.D., center, shown here with Woychik, left, and retired NIEHS researcher Jef French, Ph.D., runs a relatively new lab specializing in mouse genomics, hybrid sterility, and stem cells. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

  • Hughes and Chorley

    As one of the founders of GEMS, Hughes, left, has a lot of society history to share with incoming president-elect Brian Chorley, Ph.D., from EPA. Chorley was a postdoctoral fellow at NIEHS. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

  • Attendess and poster session

    Attendees flocked to the poster session in the atrium of the North Carolina Center for Biotechnology where the meeting was held. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

GEMS Fall Meeting talks

The meeting featured presentations by four invited speakers, as well as four postdoctoral researchers.

David DeMarini, Ph.D., from EPA — “Are There Human Germ-Cell Mutagens? We May Know Soon”

Carole Yauk, Ph.D., from Health Canada — “The Future of the Future: Next-Generation Analyses of Germ Cells to Protect the Next Generation”

Richard Woychik, Ph.D., from NIEHS — “The Broad Impact of Repetitive Elements on Protein Coding Gene Expression in the Brain and Other Tissues”

Folami Ideraabdullah Ph.D., from UNC — “Dissecting Mechanisms of Epigenetic Inheritance Using Mouse Models”

Trainee Presentations

Jenna Currier, Ph.D., from EPA — “What’s in a Tipping Point? Using Systems Biology to Characterize Adverse Oxidative Responses in Human Lung Cells”

Dan Su, Ph.D., from NIEHS — “Tobacco Smoke-associated DNA Methylation and Gene Transcription in Human Blood Cell Lineages”

Ma Wan, M.D., Ph.D., from NIEHS — “Genome-wide DNA Methylation Changes Link Cigarette Smoke to Atherosclerosis in Human Circulating Monocytes”

Jose Zavala, Ph.D., from EPA, winner of the Best Talk Award — “Two Simulated-Smog Atmospheres with Different Chemical Compositions Produce Contrasting Mutagenicity in Salmonella”

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