Each cell within the body contains the identical genetic information, but the complement of genes that are active at any given time is a critical factor in determining the type of cell (i.e. kidney, lung, heart) and its specific function within a particular tissue. All of the genetic information is contained within the DNA, and if the DNA were stretched end to end, it would extend 2 meters. Therefore, the DNA must be tightly packaged in order to fit within the cell. At the same time, the genes within the DNA must be kept accessible to the cellular machinery in order to be read as the genetic blueprint to produce RNA and proteins, the actual workhorses of the cell. The DNA is wrapped around a variety of proteins that help compact and organize its overall structure. One such complex of DNA-bound protein is called a chromatin insulator. With respect to the genetic blueprint, chromatin insulators function similarly to punctuation within a paragraph, in order to help subdivide otherwise incoherent strings of words into sentences and to logically connect related phrases.
My laboratory studies how chromatin insulators function and how they help control which genes are active. Studying how chromatin insulators work helps improve our understanding of how cells develop and give rise to different tissues. When chromatin insulators malfunction, disease can result. In fact, a single cell cannot survive without the activity of chromatin insulators.
Since chromatin insulators exist and function similarly in most multicellular animal organisms, we use the relatively simple fruit fly Drosophila as a model organism. Working with Drosophila is advantageous to doing experiments in mammals because of their much faster generation time and ease of use in genetic experiments. The Drosophila system is also extremely powerful for biochemistry and cell biology techniques, and the Drosophila genome has the largest diversity of known chromatin insulator proteins.