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Vol. LVIII, No. 21
October 20, 2006

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Stem Cell Regulation Is Focus of Oct. 25 Stetten Lecture

  Dr. Rick Young of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology  
  Dr. Rick Young of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology  

Throughout nearly 30 years of research, Dr. Rick Young of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has studied the expression of genes. Over time, he has moved from investigating the regulation of individual genes in yeast to exploring the global control of gene expression in humans. Most recently, he has begun charting the regulatory circuitry of embryonic stem (ES) cells, a project that promises to answer fundamental questions about animal development and yield medical benefits.

Young will discuss his work on stem cell regulation in this year’s DeWitt Stetten, Jr. Lecture, titled, “Regulatory Circuitry of Embryonic Stem Cells.” The talk, which is part of the NIH Director’s Wednesday Afternoon Lecture Series and is sponsored by NIGMS, will be held on Wednesday, Oct. 25 at 3 p.m. in Masur Auditorium, Bldg. 10.

Young considers human embryonic stem cells to be in a kind of “ground state” and sees their study as a basis for understanding how other human cells are regulated. In practical terms, he expects that understanding ES cells will advance regenerative medicine, which could use the cells to replace defective, damaged or aging cells in the body. “Knowledge of the regulatory pathways is also essential to drug development,” he says.

In his talk, Young will explain how his research team has approached the problem of studying cells’ regulatory networks. “What we’ve been able to deduce is the very core of the regulatory circuitry of these cells,” he says. “I imagine the whole picture is considerably more complicated than the circuit diagrams we’ve drawn so far.”

Young says his most striking finding is that ES cells go to a great deal of trouble to silence the genes encoding transcription factors that trigger the development of specific cell fates. “The whole family of developmental transcription factors is locked down silent,” he says. One regulator in particular, called polycomb, appears to be key in silencing the other developmental regulators. While polycomb silences many transcription factors, it also seems to poise them for expression. “As soon as we stimulate ES cells to differentiate, the transcription factors that polycomb was silencing are immediately activated,” Young says.

In 2002, he used yeast cells to show that it’s possible to decipher the regulatory circuitry of an entire genome. He then extended his work to human cells and, in 2005, to stem cells.

“Rick’s work on the genome-wide analysis of gene regulation and transcription has been growing in power over the years,” says NIGMS director Dr. Jeremy Berg. “As my own research touches on these areas, I have seen the impact directly.”

To study regulatory networks, Young and his lab members use commercially available microarray technology. Over the last 5 years, they have also developed new methods to support their systems biology approach, such as building computational algorithms and designing new ways of finding how proteins interact with the genome.

“Rick Young is an innovator. He pushes himself to take on a harder challenge and then develops the techniques to accomplish that,” says Dr. Laurie Tompkins, a program director in the NIGMS Division of Genetics and Developmental Biology.

Young has been a professor of biology at MIT and a member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research since 1984. He is also an associate member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

He received a B.S. in biological sciences from Indiana University in 1975 and a Ph.D. in molecular biophysics and biochemistry from Yale University in 1979. He conducted postdoctoral research at the Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research and at Stanford University. His honors include a Burroughs Wellcome Scholar Award and an NIH MERIT Award. Young has served as an advisor to NIH, the World Health Organization, and Science magazine. He has authored more than 200 research publications.

NIGMS has supported Young’s research since 1984.

For more information or for reasonable accommodation, call Sandeep Nair at (301) 496-4920. NIH Record Icon

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