Long receives nearly $2 million in grant funding from NSF, NIHBy Catherine Gianaro
Medical Center Public Affairs
Both grants will support his research project, "Genomic Analysis for Rates and Patterns of New Gene Originations in Drosophila."
The National Science Foundation has awarded Long the CAREER award (additional CAREER Awards will be announced in a future issue of the Chronicle), its 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. 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.
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.
"We think it is important to understand how these new genes originated and evolved to help organisms adapt to their environments," Long said. "They provide a clue for understanding the very general problem of the origin of genes."
Reflecting his Chinese heritage, Long named the gene 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 said, "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 associates now find that in fruit flies, new genes emerge rapidly, and the jingwei gene is not the only example. This is startling compared to previous scientific thought that new genes originated at a slow pace. Last year, they overturned a classic conclusion about the genetics and evolution of the fourth chromosome in fruit flies in two papers in Science and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Researchers in Long's lab also are busy identifying new retro-posed genes that "escape" 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 germ-line cell.
With the two new grants supporting his research, Long plans to expand his current nine-member lab by adding two more postdoctoral students, two additional graduate students and another undergraduate student. Exposing students and young scientists to revolutionary new research is a component of the CAREER program.
Long earned his B.S. and M.S. degrees in plant genetics from Sichuan Agricultural University in Ya'an, China, in 1985. He then earned an M.S. in 1990 and a Ph.D. in 1992, both in genetics from the University of California, Davis. Long did postdoctoral work at Harvard University before coming to Chicago in 1997.