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Rice Wins $1M to Study Gene Transcription Delay Processes

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Rice University scientists will use a $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to fund multidisciplinary research into how delays in gene transcription affect cellular functioning, potentially yielding knowledge that could be used in a range of synthetic biology applications.

The Rice researchers plan to use the five-year grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences develop methods for analyzing models of gene networks that incorporate transcription delay as part of their processes, Rice said today.

"Delay in transcriptional signaling is an unavoidable consequence of the way biochemistry works," Matthew Bennett, lead investigator and a professor of biochemistry and cell biology at Rice, said in a statement.

Bennett and his research partners want to understand how the cascade of events involved in transcription works and how the process is delayed.

"Once a gene is activated, often as a response to a molecule being introduced into the cell, it takes time for the results to come to fruition. Eventually, the DNA must be transcribed into RNA, and the RNA must be translated into protein. Then, sometimes, the protein has to be modified or has to fold," Bennett explained.

"We want to be able to create accurate mathematical models of gene networks to predict how they function and how they fail, so we can design new synthetic networks and know what they're going to do before we build them," he added.

Transcription delays, however, can have a "significant impact on the function of genetic networks," Bennett said, and understanding how they work could help computational biology designers draft better synthetic networks.

"There are many processes in cells that require specific timing in order to operate: stress responses, circadian oscillations, cellular growth and division. We've found the dynamics of these networks are important to their function, and delay can have a profound effect. Understanding that delay and being able to model it is critical for accurate computational simulations," Bennett said.

The research, some of which will be conducted at the University of Houston, will incorporate disciplines beyond synthetic biology, including microfluidic engineering and theoretical biology.

The investigators plan to create novel synthetic gene networks and use microfluidic devices and time-lapse fluorescence microscopy to characterize the dynamics of those networks at the single-cell level. They also will characterize the amount and variability of transcriptional delays, study the impact of experimentally characterized delay in simple gene networks, test theoretical predictions in synthetic gene networks, and incorporate transcriptional delay into models of gene regulatory networks.