The research of Jack Werren (professor) and Michael Clark (postdoctoral researcher) in the Department of Biology at the University of Rochester, has made Discover magazine's Top 100 Science Stories of 2007.
Also on Discover's list is the FDA approval of the bird flu vaccine, key testing of which was led by John Treanor, M.D., professor of medicine and of microbiology and immunology at the University of Rochester Medical Center.
Werren and Clark, along with their colleagues at the J. Craig Venter Institute, was recognized for discovering a copy of the genome of a bacterial parasite residing inside the genome of its host species. The research showed that lateral gene transfer—the movement of genes between unrelated species—may happen much more frequently between bacteria and multicellular organisms than scientists previously believed, posing dramatic implications for evolution, pest, and disease control.
Such large-scale heritable gene transfers may allow species to acquire new genes and functions extremely quickly, says Werren, a principal investigator of the study. If such genes provide new abilities in species that cause or transmit disease, they could provide new targets for fighting these diseases.
The results also have serious repercussions for genome-sequencing projects. Bacterial DNA is routinely discarded when scientists are assembling invertebrate genomes, yet these genes may very well be part of the organism's genome, and might even be responsible for functioning traits.
"It didn't seem possible at first," says Werren, a world-leading authority on the parasite, called Wolbachia. "This parasite has implanted itself inside the cells of 70 percent of the world's invertebrates, coevolving with them. And now, we've found at least one species where the parasite's entire or nearly entire genome has been absorbed and integrated into the host's. The host's genes actually hold the coding information for a completely separate species."
At the University of Rochester Medical Center, Treanor's University Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Unit, together with scientists around the nation, showed that large doses of the bird flu vaccine are safe and effective at protecting people against the disease.
The vaccine, made by Sanofi Pasteur Inc., has been purchased by the federal government and is being stockpiled for distribution by public health officials if needed.
"We feel very honored to have been able to contribute to this important effort, and we are especially grateful to our volunteer study subjects, without whom none of this research would have been possible," says Treanor. "Because of the willing participation of Rochesterians, we have something we can really use to fight off a bird flu pandemic, if it ever occurs."
Discover magazine noted Treanor's research earlier in 2007 that showed the promise of a new type of flu vaccine, grown not in eggs but instead in insect cells. That step could save the nation crucial months in producing vast amounts of flu vaccine on short notice.