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South Texas research team collaborated on genome map

Two San Antonio researchers are co-authors on one of the landmark scientific papers of all time, “Initial sequencing and analysis of the human genome,” to be published Feb. 12 in the journal Nature.

Susan L. Naylor, Ph.D., professor of cellular and structural biology at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSC), worked with colleagues at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and Washington University in St. Louis to sequence human chromosome 3. Dr. Naylor’s group ensured that the order of the genetic material in the chromosome was precisely revealed and catalogued.

Dawn K. Garcia, research associate in cellular and structural biology, also is a co-author.

Chromosome 3, the third largest of the human chromosomes, accounts for 7 percent of a person’s entire genetic blueprint. Increased knowledge of the genome is changing the face of disease prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

“In our Health Science Center labs, we have proven that a gene on Chromosome 3 is linked to ovarian cancer,” Dr. Naylor said. “We are working with many types of genes, including several that suppress formation of various cancers and others that are involved in bone development. Scientists worldwide come to us because we are the resource, the clearinghouse, for information on Chromosome 3.”

The genome, composed of an amazing primordial acid called DNA, is found in the center of every cell. More complex than the most sophisticated computer software, DNA programs the biology of development, puberty, adult life and death. It appears in x-shaped structures (chromosomes) in the nucleus of every cell, is made up of blocks of functional units called genes, and contains four foundational amino acids, abbreviated as G, C, A and T. The order of these acids determines the function of a sequence of DNA.

Dr. Naylor’s lab provided “clones” (copies of DNA extracted from cells and grown in petri dishes) for the Houston and St. Louis centers. She collaborated with Richard Gibbs, Ph.D., of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and Bob Waterston, Ph.D., of Washington University. When the sequence of a stretch of DNA was worked out, these centers shipped the results to the Health Science Center for entry into its database.

The National Genome Research Institute funded the 11-year Human Genome Project at scores of institutions, including UTHSC. Some of the 100 authors on the two Nature papers are from collaborating institutions abroad.

“We are at an incredible point because there is such an explosion of knowledge,” Dr. Naylor said. “This information is raising ethical questions faster than we can find answers. In some cases, physicians are able to predict whether someone will have a particular disease in the future. It’s believed that everyone has at least three ‘bad’ genes, and cancer, heart disease, diabetes and all the diseases have huge genetic components. The amount of knowledge coming out now will keep us occupied for a long time.”

Contact: Will Sansom