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Alber Receives Beckman Young Investigators Award

USC Dornsife’s Frank Alber will use the research grant to investigate the 3-D structure of the human genome and how it affects gene function and disease progression.

Frank Alber, associate professor of biological sciences in USC Dornsife, has won the 2012 Beckman Young Investigators Award. Photo by Pamela J. Johnson.
Frank Alber, associate professor of biological sciences in USC Dornsife, has won the 2012 Beckman Young Investigators Award. Photo by Pamela J. Johnson.

Frank Alber, newly tenured associate professor of biological sciences in USC Dornsife, has been honored with the prestigious 2012 Beckman Young Investigators Award, given to only five recipients this year. He is set to receive $750,000 over four years.

Alber will use the grant to explore the detailed 3-D genome organization in different cell types and developmental stages.

“This kind of funding is very useful because the Beckman foundation allows you to direct research that is perhaps a bit more risky than what you would propose with NIH or NSF,” said Alber, who joined USC Dornsife in 2008. “They encourage cutting-edge projects that you couldn’t get funding for elsewhere. This is very helpful, especially at the beginning of your career.”

The Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation provides grants to scholars in non-profit research institutions to promote research in chemistry and the life sciences. In particular, grants are intended to foster the invention of methods, instruments and materials that will open up new avenues of scientific research. The Beckman Young Investigators (BYI) Program supports research of faculty members in the early stages of academic careers in the chemical and life sciences.

The complete sequencing of the human genome in 2001 marked a significant accomplishment in biological research. However, since then it has become increasingly clear that the genome has levels of complexity far beyond its linear sequences. Increasing evidence suggests that the genome’s 3-D structure is specific to different types of body tissue such as skin, liver or neuron cells. This varying structure affects a variety of basic cellular processes underlying development, cellular differentiation and disease progression.

 “What we are interested in with our research is the question of how do you pack the genome into the nucleus in such a way that it is functional,” said Alber. “The DNA in each cell is a very long molecule, and if you scaled up the nucleus to the size of a soccer ball, the DNA packed inside it would be a thin thread nearly thirty miles long. Imagine, in the macro world that would be chaos! So it’s a fundamental question of how it organizes itself. Structure seems to be important to function, which means the organization is different in different cell types.”

So far Alber and his fellow researchers have introduced a series of novel approaches to address this challenge by studying the 3-D genome organizations in human and yeast cells. This work has provided insights into the principles of how the cells structurally organize their genome and how 3-D structure influences gene function and disease manifestation.

“Many illnesses are caused because there’s something wrong with the packing of the DNA,” he said. “Some cancers create duplications of chromosomes or the exchange of certain chromosome parts from one molecule to another. It only happens because they’re close in 3-D space. Stem cells can differentiate into any type of body cell, but once differentiated they cannot revert backward and we want to know why.

“Maybe it’s due to the utter complexity of the 3-D structure. This is part of what we’re researching now.”

In addition to the Beckman Young Investigators Award, Alber previously received an Alfred P. Sloan Research fellowship, is PEW scholar in biomedical sciences and in March earned a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER award.