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Groundbreaking Genetic Expression Research Receives Funding

The National Science Foundation has awarded a $2 million grant to three NC State University researchers, including the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Caroline Laplante, for a study on regulating the expression of genes, work with vast potential to improve human, animal and environmental health.

Laplante, an assistant professor in the CVM’s Department of Molecular Biomedical Sciences, is a co-investigator on the project. Primary investigator Albert Keung and co-investigator Balaji Rao are both in NC State’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

The project aims to create genetically encoded tools to describe, control and track when and how strongly genes are expressed by epigenomes in living cells. That directly impacts, “our ability to understand and improve human and livestock health, crops and bioproduction using microorganisms,” according to the NSF.

The trio will work on new ways to regulate expression of genes through a cell’s chromatin, which holds a combination of DNA, RNA and proteins organized within an epigenome. The epigenomic material dictates the genome, the complete set of an organism’s genetic instructions. The project, funded through August 2022, is expected to provide a better understanding of how cellular changes in altered gene expression, as well as fresh insight into the epigenome’s crucial functions.

“Precise regulation of cells … may allow us to combat disease, engineer crop improvements and design organisms that can remediate environmental problems or adapt to environmental chance,” said Dawn Tilbury, NSF assistant director for engineering, in a statement.

The grant is part of $16 million the NSF recently awarded to eight research teams across the country with promising approaches to characterizing gene activity and regulating gene expression without altering the sequencing of DNA. The awards are supported by the NSF’s Emerging Frontiers in Research Innovation program.

Laplante, a quantitative cell and developmental biologist, joined the CVM faculty in January 2017. She is part of the Chancellor’s Faculty Excellence cluster-hire research program Modeling the Living Embryo, dedicated to understanding the development and growth of plants and animals.