Creative Minds: Using Machine Learning to Understand Genome Function

Anshul Kundaje

Anshul Kundaje / Credit: Nalini Kartha

Science has always fascinated Anshul Kundaje, whether it was biology, physics, or chemistry. When he left his home country of India to pursue graduate studies in electrical engineering at Columbia University, New York, his plan was to focus on telecommunications and computer networks. But a course in computational genomics during his first semester showed him he could follow his interest in computing without giving up his love for biology.

Now an assistant professor of genetics and computer science at Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, Kundaje has received a 2016 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award to explore not just how the human genome sequence encodes function, but also why it functions in the way that it does. Kundaje even envisions a time when it might be possible to use sophisticated computational approaches to predict the genomic basis of many human diseases.

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Could Repurposed Asthma Drugs Treat Parkinson’s Disease?

Asthma medicine

Credit: Thinkstock/ia_64

I had asthma as a child, and I still occasionally develop mild wheezing from exercising in cold air or catching a bad cold. I keep an inhaler on hand for those occasions, as this is a quick and effective way to deliver a medication that opens up those constricted airways. Now, an NIH-supported team has made the surprising discovery that some asthma medicines may also hold the potential to treat or help prevent Parkinson’s disease, a chronic, progressive movement disorder that affects at least a half-million Americans.

The results, published recently in the journal Science, provide yet another example of the tremendous potential of testing drugs originally intended for treating one disease for possible use in others [1]. In this particular instance, researchers screened a library of more than 1,100 well-characterized chemical compounds—including drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treating asthma—to see if they showed any activity against a molecular mechanism known to be involved in Parkinson’s disease.

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Snapshots of Life: Muscling in on Development

Limb Muscles

Credit: Mary P. Colasanto, University of Utah, Salt Lake City

Twice a week, I do an hour of weight training to maintain muscle strength and tone. Millions of Americans do the same, and there’s always a lot of attention paid to those upper arm muscles—the biceps and triceps. Less appreciated is another arm muscle that pumps right along during workouts: the brachialis. This muscle—located under the biceps—helps your elbow flex when you are doing all kinds of things, whether curling a 50-pound barbell or just grabbing a bag of groceries or your luggage out of the car.

Now, scientific studies of the triceps and brachialis are providing important clues about how the body’s 40 different types of limb muscles assume their distinct identities during development [1]. In these images from the NIH-supported lab of Gabrielle Kardon at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, you see the developing forelimb of a healthy mouse strain (top) compared to that of a mutant mouse strain with a stiff, abnormal gait (bottom).

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Another Milestone in the Cystic Fibrosis Journey

Avalyn Mahoney

Caption: Two-year-old Avalyn is among the cystic fibrosis patients who may be helped by targeted drugs.
Credit: Brittany Mahoney

As NIH Director, I often hear stories of how people with serious diseases—from arthritis to Zika infection—are benefitting from the transformational power of NIH’s investments in basic science. Today, I’d like to share one such advance that I find particularly exciting: news that a combination of three molecularly targeted drugs may finally make it possible to treat the vast majority of patients with cystic fibrosis (CF), our nation’s most common genetic disease.

First, a bit of history! The first genetic mutation that causes CF was discovered by a collaborative effort between my own research lab at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and colleagues at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto—more than 25 years ago [1]. Years of hard work, supported by the National Institutes of Health and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, painstakingly worked out the normal function of the protein that is altered in CF, called the cystic fibrosis transmembrane regulator (CFTR). Very recently new technologies, such as cryo-EM, have given researchers the ability to map the exact structure of the protein involved in CF.

Among the tens of thousands of CF patients who stand to benefit from the next generation of targeted drugs is little Avalyn Mahoney of Cardiff by the Sea, CA. Just a few decades ago, a kid like Avalyn—who just turned 2 last month—probably wouldn’t have made it beyond her teens. But today the outlook is far brighter for her and so many others, thanks to recent advances that build upon NIH-supported basic research.

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DNA-Encoded Movie Points Way to ‘Molecular Recorder’

Original vs. CRISPR stored images

Credit: Seth Shipman, Harvard Medical School, Boston

There’s a reason why our cells store all of their genetic information as DNA. This remarkable molecule is unsurpassed for storing lots of data in an exceedingly small space. In fact, some have speculated that, if encoded in DNA, all of the data ever generated by humans could fit in a room about the size of a two-car garage and, if that room happens to be climate controlled, the data would remain intact for hundreds of thousands of years! [1]

Scientists have already explored whether synthetic DNA molecules on a chip might prove useful for archiving vast amounts of digital information. Now, an NIH-funded team of researchers is taking DNA’s information storage capabilities in another intriguing direction. They’ve devised their own code to record information not on a DNA chip, but in the DNA of living cells. Already, the team has used bacterial cells to store the data needed to outline the shape of a human hand, as well the data necessary to reproduce five frames from a famous vintage film of a horse galloping (see above).

But the researchers’ ultimate goal isn’t to make drawings or movies. They envision one day using DNA as a type of “molecular recorder” that will continuously monitor events taking place within a cell, providing potentially unprecedented looks at how cells function in both health and disease.

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