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Geneticist Appointed as Hughes Investigator

Published: Friday, May 10, 2013
Last Updated: Friday, May 10, 2013
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Neil Hunter has been named as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, an honor reserved for scientists who exhibit exceptionally original thinking.

Hunter studies the most fundamental processes of how genes are shuffled and passed to the next generation.

The HHMI will pay Hunter's salary and research laboratory expenses, including salaries for research staff, for five years. He will then have an opportunity to apply for renewal of the grant.

"I'm delighted to congratulate Professor Hunter on this appointment, which underlines the growing prestige and influence of UC Davis as a center for biomedical research," said UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi.

Hunter is the first UC Davis faculty member to be appointed to the prestigious HHMI Investigator program and one of just 27 new HHMI investigators announced today (May 9) from a field of 1,155 applicants. In 2009, Hunter was named an early career scientist by the institute.

"Being named as an HHMI investigator is an exceptional honor for Neil, as well as for the UC Davis College of Biological Sciences," said James E. K. Hildreth, dean of the college. "He is a leader in the field of DNA recombination and his research has major implications for understanding many diseases, including cancer. Support from HHMI will allow him to sustain his research excellence for many years to come."

Robert Tjian, HHMI president, said the organization has a very simple mission. "We find the best original-thinking scientists and give them the resources to follow their instincts in discovering basic biological processes that may one day lead to better medical outcomes," Tjian said.

Under the terms of the award, Hunter will be an employee of HHMI working at UC Davis. There are approximately 330 HHMI investigators in the U.S. who are urged to "take risks, to explore unproven avenues, and to embrace the unknown — even if it means uncertainty or the chance of failure," according to the institute's website. There are no annual reports, and investigators are free to explore and change their research direction.

Hunter said that being affiliated with HHMI has been one of the most rewarding experiences of his scientific career, and thanked those who have helped him along the way. "I would not have received this honor without the understanding, encouragement and support of my family, colleagues, department chairs and deans, both past and present," he said.

HHMI investigators are expected to devote about three-quarters of their time to research, but also to participate in other faculty duties including teaching and service.

Hunter is studying a fundamental problem in biology: how cells shuffle their DNA and distribute exactly the right number of chromosomes to each sperm or egg cell. When cells divide to make sperm and eggs, how do they make sure that each cell obtains one full set of chromosomes?

When this process goes wrong, it can lead to miscarriage and developmental defects such as Down syndrome. It is estimated that around half of the roughly 1 million miscarriages that occur in the U.S. each year are due to a chromosomal imbalance. The risk increases with the mother's age.

Organisms from yeast to humans make their gametes (spores in yeast, sperm and eggs in humans) through a process called meiosis. While most body cells contain pairs of each chromosome, sperm and eggs have one copy of each, so that the fertilized egg ends up with one set of chromosomes from each parent.

During meiosis, the matching pairs of maternal and paternal chromosomes line up together, and their DNA strands interact by a process called recombination. This allows the chromosomes to exchange DNA with their paired partner, an event called a crossover.

"Initially there are hundreds of DNA breaks throughout the chromosomes, but only a few become crossovers," Hunter said.

Crucially, there has to be at least one crossover between each chromosome pair, or they will not line up properly, and gametes will receive the wrong number of chromosomes.

"I'm interested in how crossovers are made — how the process is wired in such a way that each pair of chromosomes always gets at least one crossover, even through the total number of crossovers in a cell is quite low. It's a fundamental process that we’re far from understanding," Hunter said. The crossover process was first proposed in 1909 by Belgian scientist Frans Janssens, who observed crossovers in cells undergoing meiosis from the Californian salamander.

Hunter is also a member of the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center. In 2011, two UC Davis plant biologists, Professor Jorge Dubcovsky, Department of Plant Sciences, and the late Simon Chan, Department of Plant Biology, were among the first-ever class of HHMI-GBMF investigators, funded jointly by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to support research leading to improved crops.

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