Sprout Award Winners Announced

The recipients of the 6th annual Sprout Awards have been announced. There will be eight teams from labs in the Biology, Biochemistry, and Chemistry departments sharing the $100,000 in funding in FY 2017. The Sprout program’s grant pool was doubled this year in order to expand the support for the promising innovation and research that is happening here at Brandeis University.  The Sprout program, created 6 years with the intent to encourage entrepreneurial activity, is sponsored by the Office of the Provost and the Hassenfeld Family Innovation Center. It is administered by the university’s Office of Technology Licensing

(read more at Brandeis Now).


Data Diving for Genomics Treasure

Laboratories around the world and here at Brandeis are generating a tsunami of deep-sequencing data from organisms large and small, past and present. These sequencing data range from genomes to segments of chromatin to RNA transcripts. To explore this “big data” ocean, one can navigate the portals of the National Computational Biotechnology Institute’s (NCBI’s) two signature repositories, the Sequencing Read Archive (SRA) and the Gene Expression Omnibus (GEO).  With the right bioinformatics tools, scientists can explore and discover freely-available data that can lead to new biological insights.

Nelson Lau’s lab in the Department of Biology at Brandeis has recently completed two such successful voyages of genomics data mining, with studies published in the Open Access journals of Nucleic Acids Research (NAR) and the Public Library of Science Genetics (PLoSGen).   Publication of both these two studies was supported by the Brandeis University LTS Open Access Fund for Scholarly Communications.

In this scientific journey, the Lau lab made use of important collaborations from across the globe. The NAR study employed openly shared genomics data from the United Kingdom (Casey Bergman lab) and Germany (Björn Brembs lab).  The PlosGen study employed contributions from Austria (Daniel Gerlach), Australia (Benjamin Kile’s lab), Nebraska (Mayumi Naramura’s lab), and next door neighors (Bonnie Berger’s lab at MIT).  This collaborative effort has been noted at Björn Bremb’s blog, who has been a vocal advocate for Open Access and Open Data Sharing to improve the speed and accessibility of communicating scientific research.

tidal fly banner

In the NAR study, postdoctoral fellow Reazur Rahman and the Lau team devised a program called TIDAL (Transposon Insertion and Depletion AnaLyzer) that scoured over 360 fly genome sequences publicly accessible in the SRA portal.  Their study discovered that transposons (jumping genetic parasites) formed different genome patterns in every fly strain.  Common fly strains with the same name but living in different laboratories turn out to have very different patterns of transposons. Simply noting “Canton-S” or “Oregon-R” strains are used may not be enough to fully characterize a strain.  The Lau lab hopes to utilize the TIDAL tool to study how expanding transposon patterns might alter genomes in aging fly brains.


The piRNAs from these animals were compared in the PLoS Genetics story

In the PLoSGen study, visiting scientist Gung-wei Chirn and the Lau team developed a novel small RNA tracking program that discovered Piwi-interacting RNA loci expression patterns from many mammalian datasets extracted from the GEO portal.  Coupling these datasets with other small RNA datasets created in the Lau lab at Brandeis, the Lau group discovered a remarkable diversity of these RNA loci for each species. For example, the piRNA genomic loci made in humans were quite distinct from other primates like the macaque monkey and the marmoset.  However, a special set of these genomic loci have been conserved in their piRNA expression patterns, extending across humans, through primates, to rodents, and even to dogs, horses and pigs.

These conserved piRNA expression patterns span nearly 100 million years of evolution, which is quite a long time for these types of loci to be maintained for some likely important function in mammals.  To test this hypothesis that evolution preserved these piRNAs for their utility, the Lau lab analyzed two existing mouse mutations in these loci.  They showed that the mutations indeed affected the generation of the piRNAs, and these mice were less fertile because sperm count was reduced.  The future studies from the Lau lab will explore how infertility diseases may be linked to these specific piRNA loci.

TIDAL-Fly: a new database resource of Transposon Landscapes for understanding animal genome dynamics.

We tend to think of our genomes as nicely-ordered encyclopedias,  curated with only useful information that makes up our genes.  In actuality, nature and evolution is extremely sloppy.  All animal genomes, from us humans to the simple fruit fly, are littered with genetic baggage.  This baggage is sizeable, making up at least 11% of the fly genome and more than 45% of our genome.  The scientific term for this baggage is transposable elements (TEs) or transposons, which are mobile entities that must copy themselves to other places of the genome to ensure their survival during animal evolution.

Because there are so many copies of transposons, they can be difficult to analyze by most standard genetic methods. Brandeis postdoctoral fellow Reazur Rahman and a team in Nelson Lau’s lab have formulated a new tool called the Transposon Insertion and Depletion AnaLyzer (TIDAL). TIDAL aims to provide an accurate and user-friendly program to reveal how frequently transposons can move around in animal genomes.  Currently, the TIDAL tool has been applied to over 360 fruit fly genomes that have been sequenced and deposited in the NIH NCBI Sequencing Read Archive.  The outputs from this program are available to the whole genetics community through the TIDAL-FLY database.

tidal fly banner

The TIDAL-Fly database will allow geneticists to pick their favorite fly strain and see if a transposon has landed near to their gene and perhaps affect gene expression. Fruit flies are key model organisms utilized by many researchers, including here at Brandeis, to study human diseases, from infertility to insulin signaling to aging to sleep disorders.  Since these new transposon insertions are not available in the standard genome databases, this tool and website may provide answers to previously puzzling genetic effects not revealed by typical DNA sequencing studies.  It is Reazur’s and the Lau lab’s goal to continue updating the TIDAL-Fly database with more genomes as fly genome re-sequencing becomes easier and easier to perform.

see also: Rahman R, Chirn GW, Kanodia A, Sytnikova YA, Brembs B, Bergman CM, Lau NC. Unique transposon landscapes are pervasive across Drosophila melanogaster genomes. Nucleic Acids Res. 2015.

How regulatory sequences evolve in fruit flies

An IMP-Brandeis collaboration reveals the evolution of regulatory sequences in Drosophilids

By Yuliya Sytnikova and Nelson Lau

Enhancers are cis-regulatory DNA sequences that influence the promoters of genes, but identifying enhancers is not a straightforward process. Previously, the Stark lab developed a method for genome-wide enhancer detection called STARR-seq, (Arnold, Gerlach et al. 2013), that allowed them to identify thousands of enhancer sequences around the Drosophila melanogaster genome. In the most recent issue of Nature Genetics, a collaboration between the Stark lab of the IMP (Institute of Molecular Pathology) in Vienna, Austria, and the Lau lab at Brandeis University examines this hypothesis by studying the conservation of enhancer regulatory regions during Drosophilid fly evolution.

To ask if enhancers from D. melanogaster enhancers are also conserved in other Drosophila species in their sequences and locations, the Stark lab extended the STARR-Seq approach to D.yakuba and D.ananassae, which are separated from D.melanogaster by 11 and 40 million years ago, respectively (Arnold, Gerlach et al. 2014). Interestingly, this study also revealed hundreds of new sequences that gained enhancer function differentially between D.yakuba, D.ananassae, and D.melanogaster.

However, to test if these new sequences meaningfully direct different gene expression changes, the Lau lab conducted a targeted mRNA profiling experiment in purified endogenous follicle cells from D.yakuba and D.ananassae. The Stark lab had initiated the STARR-Seq analysis in an Ovarian Somatic Cell (OSC) line, which originated from the follicle cells of D.melanogaster, therefore the profiling of endogenous follicle cells from D.yakuba and D.ananassae was critical. The Lau lab achieved this using a methodology they developed for profiling Piwi-interacting RNAs from these cells (Matts, Synikova et al. 2013).

Figure 6: Evolution of enhancer activity in OSCs and gene expression in follicle cells in vivo.


Arnold CD, Gerlach D, Spies D, Matts JA, Sytnikova YA, Pagani M, Lau NC, Stark A. Nat Genet. 2014 Jun 8. doi: 10.1038/ng.3009. [Epub ahead of print] Quantitative genome-wide enhancer activity maps for five Drosophila species show functional enhancer conservation and turnover during cis-regulatory evolution.

Matts JA, Sytnikova Y, Chirn GW, Igloi GL, Lau NC. Methods Mol Biol. 2014;1093:123-36. doi: 10.1007/978-1-62703-694-8_10. Small RNA library construction from minute biological samples.


More science

We’ve all been busy this spring writing grants and teaching courses and doing research and graduating(!), so lots of publications snuck by that we didn’t comment on. Here’s a few I think that might be interesting to our readers.

  • From Chris Miller‘s lab, bacterial antiporters do act as “virtual proton efflux pumps”:
  • nsrv2Are ninja stars responsible for controlling actin disassembly? Seems like the Goode lab might think so.
    • Chaudhry F, Breitsprecher D, Little K, Sharov G, Sokolova O, Goode BL. Srv2/cyclase-associated protein forms hexameric shurikens that directly catalyze actin filament severing by cofilin. Mol Biol Cell. 2013;24(1):31-41.
  • What do you get from statistical mechanics of self-propelled particles? The Hagan and Baskaran groups team up to find out.
  • From John Lisman and Ole Jensen (PhD ’98), thoughts about what the theta and gamma rhythms in the brain encode
  • From Mike Marr‘s lab, studeies using genome-wide nascent sequencing to understand how transcrption bursting is controlled in eukaryotic cells
  • From the Lau and Sengupta labs, RNAi pathways contribute to long term plasticity in worms that have gone through the Dauer stage
    • Hall SE, Chirn GW, Lau NC, Sengupta P. RNAi pathways contribute to developmental history-dependent phenotypic plasticity in C. elegans. RNA. 2013;19(3):306-19.
  • Can nanofibers selectively disrupt cancer cell types? Early results from Bing Xu‘s group.
    • Kuang Y, Xu B. Disruption of the Dynamics of Microtubules and Selective Inhibition of Glioblastoma Cells by Nanofibers of Small Hydrophobic Molecules. Angew Chem Int Ed Engl. 2013.

Sprout Grants Awarded to Seven Groups

Another Brandeis NOW story covers the results of the 2012 Sprout Grant competition. Of 20 applications received, half were software related, half life sciences and physical science-related, so the groups were judged separately. Thirteen groups were asked to return for a second round of interviews, coaching and presentations to outside panels of industry judges.  Seven groups were awarded grants:

2012 Sprout Grant winners, life and physical sciences:

Radiation detector, Wellenstein, PI $20,000
  • Tuberculosis treatment, therapeutic, Hedstrom, PI $17,000
  • Cold Stage for Light Microscopy, microscope tools, Turrigiano, PI $16,000
  • Conditional gene silencing, research tool, Lau PI, $6,000

2012 Sprout Grant winners, software:

  • Innermost Labs, social network. Sahar Massachi and Adam Hughes, $7,500
  • Digital Learning Analytics, learning analytics, Larusson PI  $6,000
  • Campus Bash, social network, Y. Sebag, and M. Jafferji $6,500

For more information about the projects and the judging process, read the story at Brandeis NOW.

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