Manyuan Long, Ph.D., assistant professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, is one of the nation's 24 recipients of the David and Lucile Packard Fellowship for Science & Engineering. The Fellowship, which provides $650,000 over the course of five years, is awarded to young professors in the fields of biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, astronomy and computer science to support basic research.
"I'm very excited about the award," he says.
Long studies how genes evolve. He uses sophisticated computer software to compare and contrast thousands of genes at a time.
"This is the best time to be doing this kind of research because of the new information and technologies we have thanks to the Human Genome Project. I could not have done this work 5 years ago," he explains.
Long believes that new genes arise through the shuffling and mixing of existing genes or gene fragments. "Junk" DNA, or introns, the stretches of genetic material that appear to have no real function, actually allow the gene fragments to recombine and create new genes without overlapping, says Long. The introns act as leaders which are later spliced out, bringing the fragments together to form a new gene.
Remnants of the earliest gene pieces have been detected in fruit flies.
"We think that early in evolution, a few genes existed that could shuffle and recombine to make new genes to let organisms to adapt to new environments," Long explains.
Though Long's theory slowly gained support from notable scientists over the past decade, no one had found a gene created through shuffling until 1993 when Long announced his discovery of the gene jingwei.
Reflecting his Chinese heritage, Long named the gene jingwei after an
emperor's daughter in an ancient legend. Jingwei drowned in
Contact: Sharon Parmet
University of Chicago Medical Center