U of C scientist receives NSF CAREER Award, NIH grant totaling over $2 million

U of C scientist receives NSF CAREER Award, NIH grant totaling over $2 million

May 19, 2003

Manyuan Long, PhD, assistant professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, recently has received two grants: a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation providing nearly a million dollars over five years and grant of more than one million dollars from the National Institutes of Health.

"I'm very excited about the awards," Long says. Both grants support his research project "Genomic Analysis for Rates and Patterns of New Gene Originations in Drosophila."

Long studies how genes evolve. He uses experimental genomic technology and sophisticated computer software to compare and contrast thousands of genes at a time, ultimately finding how the forces of Darwinian evolution bring change to the smallest units of life.

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 adapt to new environments," Long explains.

Though Long's theory gradually gained support from notable scientists over the past decade, no one had found a gene so young as only two million years old 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 the East China Sea and was reincarnated as a beautiful bird that flew about dropping stones and wood in an effort to fill the sea to prevent others from drowning. "We used the name jingwei," Long says, "because this gene avoided the usual fate of the processed gene (death) and was 'reincarnated' into a new structure with novel function."

After many years of research, Long and his research associates now find that, in fruit flies, new genes emerge rapidly and the jingwei gene is not the only case, which is startling compared to previous scientific thought that new genes originated at a slow pace.

Researchers in Long's lab are also busy identifying new retroposed genes that "jump" from the X chromosome to a non-sex chromosome, or autosome. It seems a vast majority of all new common genes that originated from sex-linked parental genes move to an autosome to be expressed in a male germline cell.

With the two new grants supporting his lab, Long plans to expand his current nine-member lab by adding two more postdoctoral students, two additional graduate students and another undergraduate student. (A component of the CAREER program is to expose young scientists to revolutionary new research.)

Long earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in plant genetics from Sichuan Agricultural University in Ya'an, China in 1982. He then earned a master's degree in genetics in 1990 and a Ph.D. in genetics in 1992 from the University at California, Davis. He did postdoctoral work at Harvard University before coming to the University of Chicago in 1997.

The CAREER award is NSF's most prestigious honor for junior faculty members. Awards usually range from $200,000 to $500,000 over four to five years. Long's five-year grant totals $964,155 and is one of only two given in the field of eukaryotic genetics. NSF established the CAREER program in 1995 to help top-performing scientists and engineers early in their careers to develop simultaneously their contributions and commitment to research and to education.

Long's NIH grant of $1,040,058, also awarded over five years, will help support his research on the fourth chromosome evolution and new-gene origination.