Jackson Lab research team awarded $8.2M grant to study eggs, sperm

Posted Oct. 24, 2013, at 6:23 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 25, 2013, at 9:06 a.m.
Dr. Ken Paigen
Jackson Laboratory photo
Dr. Ken Paigen

BAR HARBOR, Maine — The Jackson Laboratory is getting an $8.2 million grant to study how sperm cells and eggs develop genetically unique profiles as they are formed.

Dr. Ken Paigen, who served as Jackson Lab’s director from 1989 to 2002, is heading up the team of researchers that will pursue the five-year research project, lab officials announced this week.

The money from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences will fund research on recombination, which is the process by which new sperm cells and eggs determine their genetic profiles.

“Recombination makes every sperm or egg genetically different from the rest,” Paigen wrote in a prepared statement. “These differences are what make all of us — except identical twins, which come from the same sperm and egg — a genetically unique individual. Recombination also made the evolution of all sexually reproducing species possible, including humans.”

The research team will include molecular biologist Petko Petkov, cytogeneticist Mary Ann Handel and computational biologist Gregory Carter. The group will focus its research efforts on a protein known as PRDM9, which controls the initiation of the recombination process, lab officials said. Humans and mice lacking the protein are sterile, they said, while recombination gone awry can result in spontaneous birth defects or reproductive failures.

According to lab officials, PRDM9 has “zinc fingers,” which are finger-like extensions that make contact with a strand of DNA during the sperm and egg reproduction process. The protein uses these extensions, which can vary in sequence, to find its corresponding match along a DNA strand, which then triggers the genetic reorganization of the newly forming sperm or egg cell. The research team plans to determine how the protein manages its multiple tasks, including how it finds its corresponding sequence of DNA that triggers recombination.

The implications of determining how zinc fingers on this particular protein essentially read the sequence of a strand of DNA go “far beyond” genetic recombination and reproduction, lab officials said. It could shed light on how other similar proteins help determine the expression of genes in individual organisms.

“Our bodies contain [more than] 800 proteins with zinc fingers, each with its own arrangement of fingers,” Paigen said. “They are by far the most common device all organisms have to regulate how their DNA works. Each of these proteins has its own special functions, involved in everything from nerve transmission to the origins of cancer.”

Joyce Peterson, spokeswoman for the lab, said the grant award is not expected to result in any new positions at the lab. The research it funds will provide continuing employment to the lab’s existing research staff, she said.

Jackson Lab uses mice to research human disease and medical conditions. Each year, it produces millions of specially bred laboratory mice that are used in similar studies all over the world. The lab has nearly 1,300 employees in Bar Harbor and more than 200 in other locations, including Sacramento, Calif., and Farmington, Conn.

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