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Research Overview

Model Organism Genetics:  
What can we learn from a yeast cell, a roundworm, a fruit fly, or a mouse? Despite how different these organisms
appear from each other and humans, they all carry out fundamental life processes like ingesting food, eliminating wastes, respiring, reproducing, and dying. Each model organism is useful experimentally for probing particular research questions. For example, yeast is a single celled organism with a short life cycle, but its cell structure is similar to that of higher organisms. Thus, it useful for studying the cell cycle, protein-protein interactions, as well as biochemical pathways. The roundworm and fruit fly are ideal for studying how animals develop from a single fertilized egg into a beautiful and complex multicellular adult. Mice are very similar to humans genetically and physiologically and thus are well suited for investigating human disease, behavior, and for unraveling the information contained in the human genome
(fruit fly image courtesy of the Pallanck Lab).


Human and Medical Genetics:
When working with model organisms like yeast, flies, and mice, geneticists choose specific individuals with a trait of interest and mate them with other individuals to determine how the trait is passed to the next generation. In contrast, humans select their own mates, and we do not create human mutants for research. How can we study the inheritance of traits in humans? The answer lies in combining a variety of approaches, including analysis of the inheritance of genetic traits through large multi-generation families, gene sequencing, and development of animal models for human diseases.

A 27 kb genomic deletion in the tumor suppressor gene BRCA1 responsible for inherited predispostion to breast and ovarian cancer in a severely affected family. (image courtesy of the King Lab)

Genomics and Proteomics:
A genome is the complete DNA content of an organism, and genomics is the study of entire genomes, including all the encoded genes and their interactions. We now have the complete sequence of the human genome, as well as the genomes of several model organisms. In 2002, three UW Genome Sciences professors, Doctors Maynard Olson, Phil Green, and Bob Waterston, received the prestigious Gairdner Award for their contributions to the completion of the Human Genome Project. The strings of A, C, G, and T nucleotides in DNA make up a code that creates complex three dimensional molecules called proteins. These molecules are the major components of body structures and carry out most of the biological processes inside our cells. Proteomics is the study of all the proteins in an organism and their interactions. The figure at the left shows 2,358 interactions among 1,548 proteins in a yeast cell (image courtesy of the Fields Lab).

Computational Biology:
Computational Biology is an emerging field focused on the analysis and interpretation of complex genomic and proteomic data. Advances in this field require the development of sophisticated computer tools for accessing, analyzing and managing data and the creation of algorithms to compare large data sets. Dr. Phil Green and his coworkers have developed several computer programs that assemble individual DNA sequences into larger segments, edit those segments and check of accuracy, then look to identify genes. The figure below (courtesy of the Swanson Lab) shows aligned DNA sequences of the gene Zonadhesin from 8 primates. This gene encodes a sperm protein involved in binding the egg. The lab of Dr. Willie Swanson analyzes conserved  and divergent regions of this and other genes to identify functionally important regions of the proteins they encode.

Research descriptions courtesy of Kristi Martinez & Maureen Munn of the Genome Sciences Education Outreach group