Here is a brief description of our work explained for non-specialists.
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All living things known on earth are made of cells. Many microbes, including bacteria and yeasts, are single cell organisms. More complex organisms, including plants, insects and animals, comprise large numbers of cells working in concert. Every living cell has a genome made of the long and very thin polymer called DNA. Within the cell the DNA molecule is packaged with proteins to form one or more chromosomes. In the more complex types of cells, called ‘eukaryotes’, the chromosomes are kept in a specialized internal compartment called the nucleus.
The chromosomes are arrays of genes, linked together like beads on a necklace. Each gene corresponds to a segment of DNA and most of these genes provide the instructions to specify how the cell can assemble the different types of proteins they require for life. Proteins are also polymers. They are made of subunits called amino acids, which are linked together to form long chains. Proteins are made of twenty different types of amino acids. These can be linked together in different combinations and forming chains of varying lengths, creating a huge number of different types of proteins with varied properties. Some proteins form mechanical structures, such as muscle. Other types of proteins include enzymes that speed up and control the many chemical reactions that keep the cell alive. These chemical reactions are collectively called metabolism and include the generation of energy within cells through the burning of sugars and other chemical forms of fuel - better known as food.
Cell proteins are the targets of most drugs and medicines used to treat disease. Most medicines are thus external chemical signals used to alter one or more of the proteins encoded by the cell genes. In some cases the drugs themselves, such as insulin, are also proteins. The antibodies your body makes to combat infection are also types of protein.
Within an organism, every cell contains the same genome - i.e. the complete set of genes to make all of the different types of proteins. However, not all genes are active, either in every cell, or at the same time. For example, some types of proteins are only made in brain cells (neurons) and not in skin cells. Some proteins are only made when cells are rapidly dividing. These are examples of gene regulation, which is a highly complex process that can operate in many different ways. When a gene is active, we say it is expressed. Differences in the patterns and levels of expression for the many thousands of different genes within cells explain differences in size, shape and behaviour between different types of cells. Within a specific type of cell, however, gene expression also changes over time and responds to many different signals from the environment, such as internal chemical messengers, called hormones and external signals, including forms of stress.
Genes can be damaged, leading either to the failure to produce the required protein, or to the production of an incorrect protein structure - these types of gene damage are called mutations. Many forms of disease, including most forms of cancer, can arise through damage to one or more genes. Such damage to the genes can be caused either by chemicals in the environment (mutagens), by smoking or by exposure to radiation. Some altered forms of genes can be passed from parents to children (inherited), leading to genetic disorders.
Our research studies how the expression of genes is controlled in human cells. We also study simpler cells, such as those in nematode worms, because this makes certain types of experiments easier to perform. We use a wide range of technologies to detect and measure cell proteins, an approach called ‘proteomics’. We study which cell proteins are produced in both healthy cells and cancer cells and which factors affect their production and activity. We also use sophisticated microscopes to observe human cells and nematodes and to record how they move, divide and change over time in response to drugs and other signals. We use both mass spectrometers (complex instruments for detecting and weighing molecules) and microscopes to detect how proteins are organised between different compartments within cells. All of these experiments generate large amounts of data, which we must analyse, visualize and store. We use a range of advanced computers and develop new software to help us analyze and share these large sets of data.
We communicate our findings and share our data with other researchers through scientific publications, via online databases and by giving lectures and seminars. Further information on all of our activities can be found throughout this website.