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23 September, 2019 - 14:51 By Kate Sweeney

University of East Anglia to launch new genetics lab with UKRI funding

The University of East Anglia

The University of East Anglia (UEA) is creating a new genetics lab having secured a £1.5million grant from UK Research and Innovation.  

The research group will study gene expression to better understand human development and diseases such as cancer. Dr Alper Akay, who secured the UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship grant, will join the UEA’s School of Biological Sciences from the University of Cambridge.  

He said: “We all start our life as a single cell. So how do we become a complex organism made of billions of cells? This is achieved through countless cell divisions that generates specialised cells such as a muscle or a nerve cell. 

“Our DNA contains the core genetic information that is inherited by our children. This genetic information programs how and when genes will be expressed within the diverse number of cells of an organism.

“DNA, like a head engineer, prepares instructions for making proteins.

“These instructions, called RNA, are carried to factories within cells. Along the way, the envelope with the instructions gets many stamps that guides where it should go or if it is an urgent message. My research group will study the function of these stamps called ‘RNA modifications’.”

Dr Akay’s previous research showed how stressors such as high temperatures or insufficient food can affect how RNA modifications affect the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans.
 
“C. elegans have been a pioneering model organism to study the function of genes. Research using C. elegans has led to three Nobel prizes over the years. We will develop a new research direction on how our diet can affect gene expression through RNA modifications,” he said.

“It is crucial to deliver DNA’s instructions precisely, and that’s why the absence of RNA modifications have been linked to many diseases including neurological disorders and cancer. Our research will lead to better understanding of the role RNA modifications play during human development and diseases.”

The UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship is a £900M funding initiative for next-generation research and innovation leaders across academia and UK business. 

Dr Akay added: “This is the most generous funding a starting lab can receive. I am honoured to be selected for this fellowship and very excited to join UEA.” 

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