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Univ. of Chicago Nabs $4.4M to Study Mystery Genes in Plague, Brucellosis

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The University of Chicago plans to use a $4.4 million award from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to try to characterize a set of genes that have unknown functions, or hypothetical genes, found in bacteria that cause plague and brucellosis.

The university said on Tuesday it will use the funds to investigate a total of 102 genes encoding proteins and small regulatory RNA sequences in Yersinia pestis, which causes plague, and Brucella abortus, which causes brucellosis, a livestock disease that can be transmitted to people.

The research, which is part of NIAID's Functional Genomics program, will be conducted at the Howard Taylor Ricketts Laboratory, a level 3 biocontainment facility on the campus of Argonne National Laboratory.

Because both Y. pestis and B. abortus are transmitted to humans through animals, information about the biological mechanisms underpinning the infection process could have implications for human health and biosecurity.

"We have an opportunity to study genes that no one has ever studied," Sean Crosson, an associate professor and lead investigator on the project, said in a statement.

"This information is very valuable to the infectious disease research community. Right now, researchers that encounter these genes in their genetic screens or expression experiments don't know what to do with them," Crosson said.

The research partners plan to use interdisciplinary bioinformatics, biochemical, and genetic research methods, as well as animal infection models such as fleas, to define gene function. They also plan to use structural biology resources such as the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne to study the biochemical functions of proteins that are encoded by these hypothetical genes.

NIAID's Functional Genomics Program was created to help investigators understand the function of uncharacterized genes in infectious disease pathogens, which could help researchers search for or develop new medical diagnostics, therapeutics, or vaccines.

Along with the University of Chicago, the other partners in the NIAID program include the Harvard University School of Public Health, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Washington.