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Genetics lab to open at the UEA with £1.5m funding from UKRI

A new research group to study how genes in our DNA are expressed is launching at UEA - thanks to a £1.5 million grant.

Dr Alper Akay has secured the prestigious UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Future Leaders Fellowship grant.

It is hoped that the pioneering research will help scientists better understand human development and diseases such as cancer.

Dr Akay, who will be based at UEA’s School of Biological Sciences, said “We all start our life as a single cell. So how do we become a complex organism made of billions of cells? This is achieved through countless cell divisions that generates specialised cells such as a muscle or a nerve cell.

“Our DNA contains the core genetic information that is inherited by our children. This genetic information programs how and when genes will be expressed within the diverse number of cells of an organism.

“DNA, like a head engineer, prepares instructions for making proteins.

“These instructions, called RNA, are carried to factories within cells. Along the way, the envelope with the instructions gets many stamps that guides where it should go or if it is an urgent message. My research group will study the function of these stamps called ‘RNA modifications’.”

Dr Akay comes from the University of Cambridge where he has already shown how stressors such as high temperatures or not having enough food can affect how these ‘stamps’ work in the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans.

“C. elegans have been a pioneering model organism to study the function of genes. Research using C. elegans has led to three Nobel prizes over the years. We will develop a new research direction on how our diet can affect gene expression through RNA modifications,” he said.

“It is crucial to deliver DNA’s instructions precisely, and that’s why the absence of RNA modifications have been linked to many diseases including neurological disorders and cancer. Our research will lead to better understanding of the role RNA modifications play during human development and diseases.”

UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship is a £900M initiative to fund next generation of research and innovation leaders across UK business and academia. UKRI Future Leaders Fellows will tackle ambitious and challenging research and innovation and develop long term careers.

“This is the most generous funding a starting lab can receive. I am honoured to be selected for this fellowship and very excited to join UEA,” he added.

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