Wednesday, March 27, 2019 at 12:20pm
Biotechnology Building, G10
Professor & Director, Salk Institute for Biological Studies
Joe Ecker is a Professor, Director of the Genomic Analysis Laboratory, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, and a Salk International Council Chair in Genetics.
It was long believed the sequence of genes in a genome was all that was needed to understand that organism’s biology. Recently, scientists have realized there’s another level of control: the epigenome. The epigenome is made up of chemicals that dot the DNA, dictating when, where and at what levels genes are expressed. But how these epigenomic tags affect biology, health and disease is still poorly understood. To decrypt the information they contain, researchers still need to answer basic questions about this extra genetic code.
Ecker first became entranced by the epigenome while he was studying Arabidopsis thaliana, a small flowering plant used for basic plant biology research. He and his colleagues wanted to know how many Arabidopsis genes were controlled by DNA methylation—one form of chemical markers that stud genes to affect how genes are expressed. In the process of the research, Ecker realized there was no good way to get a snapshot of all the methylation marks in a cell, so he created a method called MethylC-Seq to map epigenetic tags in any organism. Ecker has now applied MethylC-Seq to questions about epigenetics that span many fields, in particular, the human brain. He was the first to show that the epigenome is highly dynamic in brain cells during the transition from birth to adulthood. Now, he is charting the epigenetic differences between brain cell types to better understand disorders such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease.