How getting back to the basics can improve human health


When the DNA double helix was first described more than 60 years ago, it sparked a scientific renaissance.

It was a revolutionary milestone, but it wasn’t quite the beginning of DNA’s story.

Almost a century earlier, Swiss physician Friedrich Miescher isolated DNA (or “nuclein,” as he called it at the time) from surgical bandages. His work sparked a chain reaction of discovery that continues to this day.

“DNA research is a great example of how scientific discoveries build over time,” said Dr. Scott Rothbart, an assistant professor in Van Andel Research Institute’s Center for Epigenetics. “Although sometimes the nuts and bolts of biology can seem far removed from clinical impact, each new insight gives us a clearer understanding of the nuanced systems that underlie life. It’s like constructing a house—without a solid foundation, you have nothing firm upon which to build. Science is much the same.”

Translating discovery into action
Before creating new medications, scientists must understand the intricate processes and microscopic components that make up each and every one of us, like cells, genes and DNA.

This approach, known as basic research, is where Rothbart’s work falls. He’s interested in epigenetics, a complex system that regulates the genetic code and that plays a role in all aspects of health and disease. Rothbart hopes that a better understanding of epigenetic influences will translate into new ways to improve health and combat illness.

“The beauty of epigenetics is that it isn’t specific to one disease or one process,” he said. “It is part of everything that goes on in our biology. The potential for life-changing discoveries is massive.”

Supporting innovation
Rothbart’s innovative research in this area is supported by an equally innovative grant known as a Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health.

It is designed to give scientists more freedom to pursue impactful basic research, outside of the confines of a single project or disease area. The additional flexibility and stability can make a big difference—scientists can spend less time writing and managing multiple grants and can spend more time in the laboratory, unraveling important questions that may help improve human health down the line.

“We are thrilled to embark on the next steps of our research and grateful to NIGMS for funding our efforts,” Rothbart said. “Science doesn’t have an end point—there is always more to discover and more ways to apply those discoveries for the betterment of humankind.”

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