NIH presents 2014 New Innovator Award to Penn Medicine researcher

Roberto Bonasio, PhD, an assistant professor of Cell and Developmental Biology, Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and a core member of the Penn Epigenetics Program is one of the recipients of a 2014 New Innovator Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The NIH Director's New Innovator Award, totaling $1.5 million over five years for each of the 50 recipients this year, supports highly innovative research and creative, new investigators who exhibit strong potential to make great advances on a critical biomedical or behavioral research problem. The initiative, established in 2007, supports investigators who are within 10 years of their terminal degree or clinical residency, who have not yet received a research project grant (R01), or equivalent NIH grant, to conduct unusually innovative research.

Bonasio studies the molecular mechanisms of epigenetic memory, which are key to a number of biological processes, including embryonic development, cancer, stem cell pluripotency, and brain function. In particular, he will be looking at gene expression controlled by epigenetic pathways that alter the chemical structure of chromosomes and allow for multiple cell identities to arise from a single genome. These pathways are also critical in the brain and their improper functioning can cause mental retardation, cognitive decline, and psychiatric disorders.

Bonasio has chosen ants as a model system. With colleagues Shelley Berger, PhD, who directs the Penn Epigenetics program; postdoctoral mentor Danny Reinberg, PhD, New York University; and Jürgen Liebig, PhD, Arizona State University, Bonasio has established the ant Harpegnathos saltator as a laboratory model to study epigenetics, the process by which a single genome gives rise to a variety of physiological outcomes.

This phenomenon is particularly evident in ants, as they live in caste-based societies in which most of the individuals are sterile females, limited to highly specialized roles such as workers and soldiers. Only one queen and the relatively small contingent of male ants are fertile and able to reproduce. Yet despite such extreme differences in behavior and physical form, all females within the colony appear to be genetically identical.


Penn Medicine 


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