Biology professor Martin Gorovsky and postdoctoral fellow Kazufumi Mochizuki gained international recognition recently when their contribution to research on genetic development was recognized by the journal “Science” as the most significant scientific breakthrough of 2002.

“A string of recent discoveries indicates that a class of RNA molecules called small RNAs operate many of the cell’s controls,” the journal said. “Science hails these electrifying discoveries, which are prompting biologists to overhaul their vision of the cell and its evolution, as 2002’s Breakthrough of the Year.”

Gorovsky and Mochizuki concluded that an error-correction system responsible for accurate replication of DNA is active in many organisms. “It deals with a mechanism by which one organism deals with its germ-line DNA that has been invaded by selfish genetic elements that seek to use the cell’s genome for their own replication without regard for any harm they might do to the cell,” Gorovsky said.

This mechanism is theorized to have originated as a protection against transposed DNA that can create mutations. In people, these mutations may cause cancer. The research done at UR shows that any foreign material in a cell’s DNA is eliminated before the gene is replicated. “The Gorovsky lab’s work shows that the mechanism can actually remove the offending DNA,” Chair of the biology department Robert Angerer said.

Though Gorovsky said it is too early to speculate on future implications for medical research, he plans to continue his research in hope that clinical applications will be found. “My lab will try to acquire additional understanding of how the system works at the basic level and hope that we or others see a way to use it,” he said.

Angerer said that the work done in Gorovsky’s lab is a testament to the fact that research done at UR is often at the cutting edge.

Gorovsky agreed. “Having laboratories here that do internationally recognized work makes it easier because they view Rochester as a place where that caliber of work can be done,” he said.

Though science is quickly advancing, there are still basic mechanisms, such as those used in DNA replication, that are still largely mysterious. Angerer said that fundamentals of science are still being discovered today. “This is a great example of basic scientists following their curiosity, studying intriguing phenomena, doing clever and definitive experiments, and coming up with unexpected results that teach us something fundamental about the way Mother Nature works,” he said.

Gorovsky hopes that the recognition his lab has received will help attract more quality graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to UR’s biology department. The attention has already had a positive impact. “It certainly raised the morale in my lab and the work has already stimulated a couple of good new results,” he said. “It always makes you feel good when your colleagues appreciate your work.”

Taylor can be reached at ktaylor@campustimes.org.



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