My current research focuses on how cells respond to nutrient availability. In the context of a whole organism, this boils down to: How what you eat affects your cells.
Cell metabolism is a network of biochemical reactions that occur within the cell where one metabolite, or nutrient (like amino acids, sugars, etc.), is converted to another. These reactions and their products sustain cell growth and survival.
We’re finding that changes in nutrient availability can rewire cell metabolism and alter the cell’s epigenetic state.
So what about epigenetics? I’ve been fascinated with the field of epigenetics since I first learned about it as an undergrad. The fact that every cell in your body contains the same genetic information, yet we have hundreds of different cell types that have very different functions boggles my mind. However, epigenetics is beginning to explain how this is possible. Epigenetics refers to modifications that don’t directly alter the genetic code (DNA) but do influence how genes are expressed in the cell. The way I like to think about it is the genetic code is the all inclusive manual that includes all the instructions for every cell to function. Each cell gets the same manual (genetic code) with the same words (genes) formed from the same letters (DNA bases: A, C, T, and G). However, each cell type underlines and earmarks the parts of the manual that are important for it’s own function and crosses out those parts that it doesn’t need at the moment. These annotations form the epigenetic code. It is also important that these marks can be changed under different conditions that allow the cell to respond to the environment.
So how do these two things–cell metabolism and epigenetics–relate to each other?
Well if there’s no lead in the pencil or ink in the pen, you can’t really modify the manual. In the same way, if the cell doesn’t have the nutrients needed to maintain the epigenetic state, this may cause some confusion as to what the cell should do. So, currently I’m studying how nutrient deprivation affects the epigenetic state and the cell’s response to this kind of environment.
To do this I use a variety of approaches. Most are high throughput ‘omics technologies like RNA-seq, ChIP-seq, and metabolomics using liquid chromatography coupled to mass spectrometry (LC-MS).
This work will have impacts in the fields of diet, nutrition, and medicine, especially in the context of cancer.