BA, Human Biology, Stanford University
PhD, Microbiology and Immunology, Stanford University
Jennifer Gerton, PhD, likens the process of scientific discovery to a progressive march rather than a singular “a-ha” moment, and that’s what she loves about it. “Often we think that science happens by epiphanies,” she says. “But whenever I have a ‘brand-new’ idea, I think back and realize all the time I was building toward that moment.”
Raised near San Francisco, Gerton was inspired to learn virology by the emergence of AIDS in the mid-80s. She recalls her mother, a nurse, being troubled by a young male patient who was dying of the disease. Gerton earned her BA in human biology in 1990 from Stanford and went on to complete her PhD in microbiology and immunology there, studying HIV-1 integrase, a protein that enables the virus to insert its genetic material into the host genome. As a postdoc at the University of North Carolina and then at the University of California San Francisco, she continued with the theme of genome stability but switched gears to investigate how chromosomes are transmitted during cell division in budding yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Gerton joined the Stowers Institute in 2002.
Gerton has conducted her research in yeast since the very beginning of her career, when she teamed up with all three of her advisors, Pat Brown, PhD, of Stanford, Thomas Petes, PhD, of the University of North Carolina, and Joseph DeRisi, PhD, at UCSF, to coauthor the first publication using microarrays to map protein binding sites along all sixteen Saccharomyces chromosomes. Yeast continues to be the “workhorse” of her lab. “It’s a great model system,” she says. “It’s genetically tractable. We can do a lot of experiments. And it’s an incredibly elegant system we can use to learn fundamental principles of genome integrity, and then take and test them in a mammalian system.”
Equal to research in Gerton’s eyes are the relationships she’s formed with students and postdocs who have trained in her lab, and who are now working at prominent scientific institutions around the world. “I am really proud of the people who trained with me. They still share with me what’s going on with them in their professional lives,” Gerton says. “That’s one of the great things about my job, when people come and check back in with you. I love that feeling.”
In her moments away from the lab, Gerton enjoys spending time with her husband and two children, attending their sports and performing arts events, and exploring all that Kansas City has to offer. “We love going out to see live music, going biking, watching soccer at Sporting Park, and visiting the Kauffman Center, our performing arts center, to see the ballet and symphony,” she says.
The Gerton Lab at the Stowers Institute studies chromosomes – the molecular structures made up of DNA and protein that provide the instructions for life. Defects in chromosome function underlie many human diseases such as cancer and birth defects. Using yeast and mammalian model systems as well as human cell lines and patient data, Gerton and colleagues are investigating groups of proteins responsible for chromosome upkeep.
One group of proteins studied in the Gerton Lab consists of the structural maintenance of chromosomes (SMC) proteins, which form large ring-shaped complexes that associate with chromosomes at many sites. The lab’s exploration of a SMC complex subtype type called the cohesin complex began with early experiments that mapped the location of the cohesin complex in the budding yeast genome. Subsequent studies have provided a wealth of information on how this protein complex helps organize chromosomes, including a groundbreaking finding revealing a critical role for cohesin in the nucleolus – the factory in the nucleus where ribosomes, the protein builders of the cell, are made. In fact Gerton initiated and co-organizes the ASBMB special symposium “Emerging roles of the nucleolus” to bring together researchers around this topic. Gerton’s research may help provide a better understanding of and potentially new treatment approaches for human conditions such as Roberts Syndrome, Cornelia de Lange Syndrome, and cancers in which cohesin function is impaired.
Gerton has identified several factors that help the kinetochore, another protein complex located on the centromere of chromosomes, move chromosomes within a dividing cell. In addition, her team is investigating how the loss of chromosome cohesion and other factors impact female reproductive aging. The Gerton Lab is also part of a large international consortium working to complete the assembly of the human genome from telomere-to-telomere. She speculates some newly assembled regions of the human genome may act as phenotypic modifiers of disease states.
Cornelia de Lange Syndrome Center
Basil O’Connor Scholar
Board of Directors, Cornelia de Lange Syndrome Foundation
Editorial Board, Journal of Biological Chemistry