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$1.92M grant to fund IUPUI physicist’s study of how DNA moves inside cells

Dec 5, 2022

An IUPUI scientist’s research on how the DNA moves inside cells — and how that movement may relate to cancer — has recently garnered nearly $2 million from the National Institutes of Health.

Jing Liu, an assistant professor of physics at the School of Science at IUPUI, will receive $1.92 million from the NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences over the next five years to study the movement of the chromatin. Chromatin is the mixture of DNA and proteins that form the chromosomes in the cells of humans and other organisms.

Jing Liu. Photo by the School of Science at IUPUI Jing Liu. Photo by the School of Science at IUPUI

“We think the movement of chromatin may modulate the interaction of DNA in the cell with regulatory molecules, which impacts many fundamental cell functions, such as DNA replication, DNA repair, transcription and, finally, gene expression,” Liu said.

In a recently published study, Liu and colleagues found that chromatin moves much faster at the site of DNA damage in comparison to undamaged areas. They also found that this movement is not random but rather a “coherent” form of movement, with DNA moving as a group over a short distance.

This suggests that chromatin movement may play a role in DNA repair — a process whose failure can result in cancer. Understanding the connection between chromatin movement and DNA repair, transcription and other cellular activities could potentially yield improved cancer diagnosis and treatment, Liu said. For example, scientists might be able to test different drugs for their ability to modify chromatin motion in way that strengthens DNA repair.

But first researchers need a much deeper understanding of the underlying mechanisms behind this activity.

According to Liu, a major challenge of the work is the extremely small scale of the activity under observation, since chromatin motion is measurable in tens of nanometers — a fraction of the width of a human hair. A primary goal under the grant is creating an imaging system capable of capturing the movement of chromatin in three dimensions, as well as recording its activity down to the millisecond.

“Developing an advanced imaging system is often infeasible due to budget limitations, but this grant provides us a much greater research scope,” Liu said.

Another primary research goal under the grant is identifying the causal link between chromatin motion and epigenetic modification, transcription and gene expression.

Jing's research suggests that chromatin plays a role in DNA repair. Photo by Getty Images Jing's research suggests that chromatin plays a role in DNA repair. Photo by Getty Images

The award is a continuation of the NIH’s previous support of Liu’s research on chromatin motion in DNA repair, which was funded under a special program at the National Cancer Institute that supports physics research in the field of oncology. The new grant, which is a part of the NIH’s prestigious MIRA program, is a renewed recognition of the insight that physics and imaging technology can provide in the fight against cancer, Liu said.

“I’m grateful that our research on chromic motion will continue, and excited to reach beyond our initial research goals of DNA repair in order to also understand its role in more general intranuclear activities,” he added. “This work has the potential to transform our understanding of this disease mechanism and speed the development of new drug therapies.”

Liu is also a member of the IU School of Medicine’s Center for Computational Biology and Bioinformatics and an associate member of the IU Melvin and Bren Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center.

What they’re saying:

“Jing receiving this award from NIH extends the long standing tradition in biophysics in our department. For his group to be able to use advanced microscopy techniques in a physiologically relevant problem, observing how chromatin molecules dance inside the nucleus, speaks volumes of the breadth and depth of their research. It is heartening to see the progress this young star is doing and the impact he is making in the field.” — Ricardo Decca, chair and professor of physics at the School of Science at IUPUI

“This grant is a testament to the vital research aimed at pushing the limits of microscopy and imaging taking place at the School of Science at IUPUI. Professor Jing Liu’s research will allow unprecedented exploration of the movement of chromatin, a fundamental and still largely unexplored aspect of cell biology. I’m excited to learn what he and his students will uncover, especially because of the potential implications for DNA repair. Understanding this connection will have a lasting positive impact on the health of our community and the world.” — John DiTusa, dean of the School of Science at IUPUI


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