Kernels of life – NU graduate’s corn DNA research could help cure disease
A former Nevada Union High School graduate has been turning to a staple of the American diet to figure out how the nomadic movement of tiny pieces of genetic code change our lives.
Sound complex? On the surface, yes. More importantly, Thomas Peterson, a professor of genetics at Iowa State University and a 1972 graduate of Nevada Union High School, wants the world to know that the research associated with his work has real-world applications for all of us.
The complexities of the DNA double helix fascinated Peterson, who studied with James Watson, who in 1953 co-discovered the “secret of life,” as co-worker Francis Crick called it.
In 1987, after earning his doctorate in biochemistry, Peterson began working under Watson at the renowned Cold Spring Harbor laboratory in Long Island.
Peterson’s work was a far cry from his job as a carpenter and home builder near Lake of the Pines after graduating from high school.
Peterson’s father, Roy, is known locally as the man who once owned Higgins Ranch near the corner of Highway 49 and Combie Road. He’s proud of his son, even if he’s not quite sure how to explain his son’s acumen for science.
“He got his mother’s brain, because I still have mine,” Roy Peterson joked. “We’d talk about it more if I could understand it.”
Watson, a legend in genetics, wasn’t particularly impressed with Thomas Peterson when he interviewed for a job. The science icon yawned and coughed during Peterson’s introduction, the younger scientist recalled.
“He’s a very odd duck,” Peterson said. “But he wasn’t shy. He’d insert himself into your business.”
Peterson has for several years been studying corn genomes. A genome is an organism’s complete set of DNA, the chemical compound that governs the genetic makeup of each organism.
In his work, Peterson, as well as other plant geneticists, have discovered that the corn chromosomes can be rearranged in much the same way human chromosomes can.
Understanding how and why this happens has Peterson and his colleagues searching for ways to understand how the rearrangement of DNA within a chromosome affects disease and human adaptation.
For example, Peterson said he’s helped discover how different arrangements of DNA in people with cancer move in a similar way to the arrangements of DNA in your garden variety corn on the cob.
Corn, in essence, can stand in for humans when conducting experiments to understand how the body changes because of disease or age, Peterson said.
“Once we can understand the cause of that spontaneous rearrangement, we can have a better understanding of how to prevent them,” he said.
If this sounds over your head, think how Peterson’s work applies to your trip to the grocery store.
You’ve heard of genetic modification of foods, right? How tomatoes can be grown so their shelf life lasts weeks, not days? How certain kinds of corn can be grown so they stay sweeter, longer?
In a sense, that’s the world Peterson works in.
“The whole subject of genetic engineering … has potential if it can be done in a way that is safe and responsible,” he said.
He’s not, however, in a rush to flood the produce section with these foods. He’s less interested in selling a product than he his in finding out what makes an organism act the way it does.
Peterson points out that much of his research funding comes from the National Science Foundation and the United States Department of Agriculture, not those with ties to food distributors or manufacturers.
Peterson is interested, however, in understanding the arrangement of a plant’s DNA so that geneticists may be able to one day introduce vitamins into edible plants, simply by adding genes to chromosomes, or discovering how genetic code moves in a sick person.
They may even be able to pinpoint the causes of disease, something that Peterson hopes the humble corn can help teach him and the medical community.
“Once we understand the cause of those spontaneous rearrangements, we can have a better understanding of how to prevent them,” he said.
• What is a genome? An organism’s complete set of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), a chemical compound that contains the genetic material needed to develop and direct the activities of every organism. DNA molecules join together to form two twisting, paired strands, often referred to as the “double helix.”
• What is the Human Genome Project? An effort to identify all human genes. Volunteers were selected to participate in the project, which included taking blood samples and analyzing them. According to the National Human Genome Research Institute, the project “is complete as it can be,” within the limits of today’s technology.
• Why map out the genome? It can help geneticists study how disease affects the body, and how genes can be inserted to chromosomes that can, for example, fortify vegetables with more vitamins. It also can help geneticists study mutations of genes that cause disease.
• What is a chromosome? A long chain of DNA molecules and associated proteins that largely determine what an organism will look like, and what will be passed on to offspring.
Sources: National Human Genome Research Institute, http://www.accessexcellence.org
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