OHIO STATE MICROBIOLOGIST WINS NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES AWARD FOR GENE REGULATION DISCOVERY
Henkin received the award for discovering that certain genes in the bacterium Bacillus subtilis use RNA, instead of proteins, to determine whether to make specific substances that are critical to a cell's survival.
A better understanding of how B. subtilis regulates gene expression could help scientists design more potent antibiotics to attack bacteria that cause diseases like tuberculosis and pneumonia.
Henkin shares the 2006 award with Ronald Breaker, an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at Yale University. Although Henkin and Breaker have never collaborated, they are both recognized by the NAS "for establishing a new mode of regulation of gene expression in which metabolites regulate the activity of their cognate pathways by directly binding to mRNA."
The two will share the $25,000 purse for the award, which is one of 15 awards given by the NAS this year for “major contributions to science.” The awards will be presented on April 23 at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., during the Academy's 143rd annual meeting.
From laboratory experiments Henkin, working in partnership with her husband Frank Grundy, a research scientist at Ohio State , learned that RNA controls the regulation of certain groups of so-called housekeeping genes in B. subtilis. These genes produce products that all cells need in order to survive.
If a cell needs to make a particular product, it starts a process called transcription. In transcription, the information in a region of DNA is copied to make a strand of messenger RNA (mRNA), which is then used to make a protein.
Henkin and her colleagues found that very early in the transcription process, signal molecules can bind to the mRNA. Binding of the signal molecule determines whether transcription stops early, or whether it continues to allow the product to be made.
“The signal molecules directly interact with the first little bit of the RNA, and that then tells the transcription machinery if it should give up and stop, or keep going and finish its job,” Henkin said.
It turns out that many B. subtilis genes use this mechanism to regulate gene expression, and that related bacteria also use it. B. subtilis does not make people sick but it is closely related to the bacteria that cause diseases like pneumonia, botulism, tuberculosis and anthrax.
Researchers estimate that 5 to 10 percent of the genome of B. subtilis and related bacteria use this kind of regulatory mechanism.
“We started looking at one gene out of the 4,000 genes in the B. subtilis genome and found that hundreds of genes use this mechanism,” Henkin said. “We've also seen this type of mechanism in pathogenic bacteria related to B. subtilis, and in some fungi.”
The NAS Award in Molecular Biology is supported by Pfizer, Inc., and has been presented since 1962.
Contact: Tina Henkin, (614) 688-3831; Henkin.firstname.lastname@example.org
Written by Holly Wagner, (614) 292-8310; Wagner.email@example.com