UC Davis geneticist Neil Hunter was recently chosen by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute as one of the nation’s best and most creative early career scientists for his research on chromosome repair.
Hunter, associate professor of microbiology and molecular cell biology, is one of 50 scientists who received a $1.5 million award from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute for research purposes. Hunter was chosen out of a pool of over 2,000 scientists, and is the first UC Davis faculty member to receive this prestigious award for his innovation and ingenuity.
Hunter’s research focuses on homologous recombination, a means of DNA repair, which creates new combinations of DNA and facilitates chromosome segregation. Glitches in the process of homologous recombination can lead to Down’s syndrome, hereditary cancers and infertility.
Those chosen to receive the award were selected for “forging innovative collaborations to broaden the impact of their work,” according to the HHMI press release.
As an undergraduate at the University of Manchester, Hunter became fascinated with studies of yeast as a model for understanding the cell cycle. Later, he became involved in researching the processes of homologous recombination when he worked on his Ph.D. in genetics at Oxford University.
Prior to Hunter’s arrival, homologous recombination research at UC Davis was confined to the yeast model. The Hunter Lab continues to use yeast, but has taken the next steps toward advancement by beginning mammalian research in mice.
“Many aspects are similar between yeast, mice and humans. So similar that you would be surprised,” Hunter said. “There are detailed molecular experiments that we simply cannot do in mammalian systems, but we can do in yeast.“
Advanced steps toward mammalian research sets this research apart from that of other labs, and may have been a contributing factor to the selection of Hunter over other researchers.
“There’s a lot of potential with our research,” said Nate Thayer, a graduate student and lab assistant to Hunter. “Sometimes professors get stuck working with one type of organism, but Hunter is willing to look outside of his comfort zone.”
Hunter does not yet have specific plans for the grant, but he hopes it will have a fundamental impact on the way that people think of homologous recombination, and will attract the best scientists to his research lab.
“I think HHMI awarded people from whom the best is yet to come,” Hunter said. “They put their money behind people who they hope will make the greatest advances.“
According to Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Hunter will receive a six-year appointment and the liberty of advancing research with the institute’s funding. While continuing to do research at UC Davis, HHMI will cover his salary, benefits and all necessary research materials.
“In the long run, I hope that understanding the mechanism and regulation of homologous recombination can lead to improvements in diagnosis and treatment of these cancers and infertility,” Hunter said.
GABRIELLE GROW can be reached at email@example.com.