The billions of cells in your body share the same DNA sequence and yet display a vast array of morphologies and functions. Understanding how this same genetic material is interpreted in diverse cell types remains a challenge. Epigenetic modifications are those that change how DNA is expressed without altering the genome sequence. For example, chemical modification of histones, the proteins that bind DNA into the large chromosome structures, can influence how genes are expressed.
In a related process, DNA itself can become methylated, which is typically thought to be a gene-silencing signal. Understanding how epigenetic modification influences gene expression has significant therapeutic potential and may provide us with insights into how we can disrupt abnormal cell divisions in cancer or promote self-renewal in stem cells for clinical use in repairing damaged or diseased tissue.
Dr. Cydney Nielsen aims to characterize epigenetic changes of stem cells, from which all other cells in the body arise. Stem cells can either self-renew to form identical daughter cells or can divide and differentiate into specialized cell types. Dr. Nielsen will use next-generation sequencing technologies and develop new data analysis techniques to examine the epigenetic changes and determine gene expression patterns in stem cells before and after differentiation.
Using these data sets, she will determine if characteristic epigenetic modification patterns exist for self-renewing cells. She will also use this information to determine if certain therapeutics are able to induce self-renewal in stem cells, to determine what the epigenetic changes are in this case, and if this ''reprogramming'' of cellular state opens up promising therapeutic applications. Such an approach will be valuable in evaluating the extent to which chemically induced cells have been reprogrammed and are appropriate for therapeutic use for regenerative medicine.