University of North Dakota Faculty/Staff Newsletter

Your grandchildren are what you eat

Your overeating or cigarette smoking today might have an effect on not only you but also your grandchildren. Trying to understand the potential links between environmental exposures to various chemicals and the development of human diseases later in life is the focus of an effort by UND biomedical researchers who have received a five-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, which is the nation's medical research center and is the largest source of funding for medical research in the world.

Assistant Professor Joyce Ohm in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the School of Medicine and Health Sciences is the principal investigator for the research project. She will lead a collaborative endeavor that draws on the expertise of scientists from throughout the SMHS.

During the project titled, “Environmental toxins and stem cell epigenetic/epigenomic remodeling,” UND biomedical researchers will study how your epigenome, the biochemical elements in the cellular neighborhood around your DNA, may direct the expression of your genetic code for good or for ill and how epigenetic changes to your DNA may be passed to your offspring and their children.

Your DNA was once thought to hold your destiny chiseled in stone; the sole determinant of who you are or will be. However, scientists have recently found that your DNA is text that is editable by your epigenome, and this fluidity plays a pivotal role in whether you develop a disease based on the effect of exposure to toxins and if you might pass this susceptibility to future generations.

“Abnormal epigenetic regulation has been implicated in a variety of human diseases,” Ohm said. “Those diseases include cancer, obesity, diabetes, infertility, and neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease.” Ohm completed a postdoctoral fellowship in oncology with an emphasis in cancer and stem cell epigenetics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 2009.

UND scientists will use two types of adult stem cells to study how environmental toxins affect your epigenome: The first are induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs, adult stem cells whose calendars have been turned back by scientists to their pluripotent state, meaning the cells are not limited as to the type of cell they can become. The second are mesenchymal stem cells, which are derived from the bone marrow of adults.

Working with Ohm will be Professor Brij Singh and Associate Professor John Shabb from the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology; and Associate Professor John Watt from the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology.

Because analysis of the data for the human epigenome dwarfs the effort that took place to map the human genome, they will rely on Assistant Professor Kurt Zhang in the Department of Pathology, an expert in bioinformatics, the interdisciplinary field that uses the power of computers and statistics to analyze the wealth of information generated by biomedical researchers.

-- Denis MacLeod, assistant director, Office of Alumni and Community Relations, School of Medicine and Health Sciences, 777-2733,

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