by Byron Gin
For scientists interested in genetics and evolution, Thomas Kocher says, "This is the best time in history to be a biologist." As he speaks, Kocher, a UNH professor of zoology, opens the door to an immense freezer. Moisture condenses in the cold air and steams over hundreds of tiny plastic boxes stacked on the freezer shelves.
Inside the boxes are thousands of DNA samples from Kocher's various projects on fish genetics. Down the hall is the ultimate destination of all that DNA: a state-of-the-art automated DNA sequencer, capable of determining 96 sequences within a few hours. Just 10 years ago, sequences were determined manually, and a skilled technician could do only a few sequences a day. Once the DNA is sequenced, it is analyzed using a sophisticated computer program to identify genes that might affect the health or structure of the organism.
Each DNA sequence is like a chain, where the links of the chain are pieces called bases. A typical human gene is made up of 20,000 bases. Researchers are divided over the number of human genes; estimates range from 38,000 to 150,000 genes. Genetics is the study of one gene at a time, while the new field of genomics is the study of all genes at the same time.
UNH now has a new center devoted to that study, the Hubbard Center for Genome Studies, named in honor of the Hubbard family of Walpole, N.H. The center, located on the fourth floor of the new Environmental Technology building, will enable UNH researchers in the life sciences and physical sciences to sequence and annotate the hundreds of thousands of sequences that make up an organism.
Kocher directs the center's activities. Will Gilbert holds the Hamel Professorship in Innovation and Technology. He is an expert in the programming needed to support and manage the colossal amounts of data generated by the sequencer. The center's research staff also includes research assistant professor Karen Carleton and a lab manager, in addition to postdoctoral and graduate students. The holder of the Hubbard chair in genomics is expected to be named this fall.
The center will give students the opportunity to work with sophisticated equipment. "Students who can use a DNA sequencer can walk into a job at many different companies," Kocher says.
Kocher's own research is focused on mapping the genome for tilapia, a freshwater fish native to tropical Africa and raised on fish farms around the world. He is studying the genes that control growth rate, sex and color in tilapia to help fish farmers improve production efficiency and therefore profitability. "I expect we'll complete the (DNA) sequence for tilapia in my lifetime," he says. "It's not something I could have anticipated even five years ago."
Return to Campus Currents table of contentsblog comments powered by Disqus
Current issue | Past issues | Class notes
Department archives | Send a letter/news | Address updates
Advertise | About UNH Magazine | Alumni home | UNH home
University of New Hampshire Alumni Association
9 Edgewood Road Durham NH 03824 (603) 862-2040