The Division of Biology, one of the first basic science divisions established at the Beckman Research Institute, focuses on understanding the basic biological processes of genetics, gene expression and function, epigenetic mechanisms and DNA repair systems. Aided by the resources of the parent Department of Cancer Biology, and with a strong foundation in basic research methodology, division scientists are working to bring to light new insights that one day could produce novel therapies for a wide range of genetic diseases.
Independent investigators within the division study subjects ranging from molecular mechanisms of cancer to DNA repair and chromatin structure. At present, there are two major areas of investigation in the Division of Biology.
One active area of research in the division is the study of DNA damage, DNA repair and mutagenesis, which researchers use to assess links to the molecular epidemiology of cancer and therapeutic implications of those aspects. Gerd P. Pfeifer, Ph.D., Lester M. and Irene C. Finkelstein Chair in Biology, and Timothy R. O’Connor, Ph.D., each study DNA damage and repair mechanisms elicited by different chemical and physical carcinogens and drugs targeting DNA.
A second dynamic research area in the division focuses on epigenetics, or the study of heritable differences that do not depend on changes in primary nucleotide sequence. Epigenetics is an exciting, developing area of mammalian genetics research. Recently, researchers firmly established that epigenetic mechanisms are essential for normal mammalian development and play a role in several human genetic diseases and in cancer progression. Judith Singer-Sam, Ph.D., investigates allelic exclusion in the mouse nervous system, a phenomenon that results in expression from only one of the two alleles of a gene in a cell, although both alleles may be normal and have the same nucleotide sequence. Wen Yong Chen, Ph.D., is studying how epigenetic regulation controls mammalian longevity and cancer development. Arthur Riggs, Ph.D., studies DNA methylation and X chromosome inactivation, which involves the epigenetic silencing of all genes on one of the two X chromosomes in mammalian cells. Dr. Pfeifer also investigates mechanisms of epigenetic changes in cancer. Dustin E Schones, Ph.D., is investigating the role of chromatin organization in gene regulation and how this contributes to development and disease progression.
Additional studies delve further into the molecular origins of disease and maintain a clear focus on revealing the underpinnings of cancer and other life-threatening illnesses as well as potential pathways to new therapies.