Researchers of the GECKO Project lead the first study ?of how life experiences shape who we are
By decoding our DNA, the Human Genome Project was supposed to give us a tool to explain who we are as individuals. We thought our genetic code could tell us everything: where we came from, what we looked like and our susceptibility to diseases.
The project didn’t quite live up to our expectations. It succeeded in unraveling three billion pieces of DNA and it found that humans have 23,000 genes, but those genes are far more complicated than we thought.
“Each gene has its own dimmer switch, like a light bulb dimmer, to regulate the amount of protein produced from it,” says Michael Kobor, an assistant professor in the Department of Medical Genetics at UBC and with the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics (CMMT). “Genes can be turned all the way on or all the way off, or can be set anywhere in between.”
Research has shown that genes get turned on or dimmed down in part because of a chemical reaction called methylation, where groups of carbon and hydrogen atoms are added to the DNA within a person’s cells. Research has also shown that a person’s life experiences play a role in DNA methylation, but no one knows how specific experiences shape our DNA and who we are as individuals.
UBC researchers are working on the first project to understand this connection. The Gene Expression Collaborative for Kids Only or GECKO Project is one of a series of studies led by Kobor and Tom Boyce, a professor in the Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP), that involve researchers across campus and from universities around the world.
The GECKO project focuses on children between the ages of seven and 11. According to Boyce, 15–20 percent of children in any population is responsible for more than half of childhood illnesses and more than half of paediatric health care use. These children are more susceptible to injuries and common illnesses like colds but also more susceptible to major behavioural problems and mental health issues later in life. Other children will have none of these problems.
“We’re trying to understand why there is such great unevenness in children’s illness experiences,” says Boyce. “The differences among children’s life experiences and risks for physical and mental health problems are the basis for this study.”
The GECKO team is recruiting 400 children from across the Lower Mainland for the study. The researchers drive their GECKO van, or mobile lab, to a child’s house to collect a DNA sample and conduct a series of tests to measure how a child responds to stress, their brain activity and development. Meanwhile, the child’s parents are interviewed for information about the child’s life experiences and the family’s socioeconomic status.
Socioeconomic status is the single most powerful predictor of health, says Boyce. It’s also known that stress and socioeconomic status are closely related and that children who experience more mental and biological illness have more problems with stress. These problems often last a lifetime and will hinder academic achievement and acquisition of cognitive skills.
“We’re trying to find out how environmental and social experiences literally get under your skin and stick with you for a long time,” says Kobor.
When the DNA is collected, it is sent to Kobor’s lab for analysis. GECKO is one of six projects that are part of a “constellation of studies” and Kobor’s lab is at the centre of it all.
Kobor’s team is assessing the amount of DNA methylation at 480,000 different sites on each person’s DNA. When the project was launched about four years ago, the technology was still developing and the lab had planned to look at only 1,500 sites.
“The technology is much more advanced now,” says Kobor. “With 480,000 different sites, we’re covering nearly all human genes.”
The benefit of looking at so many sites is that the researchers don’t single out any specific genes to study; they’ll let the data tell them what is important.
“We’re studying children’s vulnerability at a deeper level than ever before,” says Boyce. “We want to know why some children experience so much in the way of affliction and illness, so that ultimately we can develop new interventions.”