April 21, 2008
60, Number 28
Visit a virtual lab
Check out Victor Corces’ lab Web site, which combines complex science with Spanish bulls, octopi, a skittish lizard, Dooley and other surprises.
April 21, 2008
Small steps lead to big career
By carol clark
“If it wasn’t for polio, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today,” says Victor Corces, Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor and chair of biology.
Polio struck Corces just a year after he was born in a small town in the Spanish province of Asturias, where his father was a policeman. The disease damaged his legs, leaving him unable to keep up physically with other children. “I was a weird guy,” he recalls. “I didn’t have friends. All I did was solve math problems all day.”
His parents worried about his future. A psychologist advised them that Corces should pursue biology instead of math, so he would interact with people in a lab. Then one of his teachers arranged for Corces to visit a famous Spanish biochemist at work. “I thought the lab was so cool — the equipment and the coats that they wore,” he says. “I knew there was no place I’d rather be.”
Corces studied biology and biochemistry in Madrid before leaving Spain for a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard. His research became centered on epigenetics: For more than two decades, he has been studying fruit flies to uncover secrets of DNA’s arrangement and organization in the cell of a nucleus.
“It’s an extremely difficult problem,” he says, “so it keeps my life interesting.”
While geneticists study the content of DNA, epigeneticists look at the patterns formed by DNA threads, known as chromatin fibers. Epigeneticists have discovered that these fibers are arranged in loops, similar to the outline of flower petals. The loops are formed by groups of proteins on the threads that can interact with one another and chemically bind together.
What are all of the proteins involved in the formation of these loops, and what is the function of this loop structure? Corces’ lab seeks to tease out the answers to these and other questions.
One hypothesis is that the loops act as storage bins — a way for stem cells to organize themselves as they differentiate to create a complex organism. For example, when a stem cell differentiates to form muscle tissue, the genes connected to muscles are switched on, and other genes are switched off. The muscle genes may be “filed” in certain loops, to keep them separate from the genes not needed by muscle tissue.
“This is the hypothesis we’re trying to prove,” Corces says.
His research holds implications for the study of all kinds of genetic diseases. For instance, the cause of some muscular dystrophies could somehow be connected to a problem with the formation of chromatin loops holding muscle genes.
Corces is also a 2006 Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor — one of only 20 scientists in the United States to receive a $1 million grant to inspire students in the sciences. He used the funding to create a program called Research Internship and Science Education (RISE), which he introduced to Atlanta when he left Johns Hopkins University to join Emory last fall.
RISE brings students from inner-city high schools to campus, where they work alongside Emory students in Corces’ lab. “I think it’s important to offer opportunities to gifted people who may not have the money or the means to get a good education in the sciences,” Corces says.
It’s an impressive career so far. And yet, Corces’ mother still worries about his future. “She asks me, ‘What are you doing working with fruit flies? Why don’t you do something worthwhile, like cancer research?’” he says, smiling. “She won’t be happy until I get into the Spanish newspapers.”