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Zhiping Weng works to accelerate understanding of genome regulation with ENCODE 4 project

By Megan Bard

UMass Medical School Communications

February 27, 2017

The Women in Science video series on UMassMedNow highlights the many areas of research conducted by women at UMass Medical School.

Zhiping Weng, PhD, professor of biochemistry & molecular pharmacology and director of the Bioinformatics and Integrative Biology Program, has received a $7.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to continue an international effort to catalog all the genes and regulatory elements in the human genome.

Dr. Weng heads the data analysis center of the National Human Genome Research Institute Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) project, part of the NIH, which is now in its fourth phase known as ENCODE 4. Approximately $126 million in grants will be disbursed to various teams throughout the world over the next four years to support ENCODE 4.

“The goal of the ENCODE project is to delineate all functional elements in the human genome,” Weng said. “The rich data and annotations generated by the ENCODE project has had far-reaching impacts on the biomedical and clinical communities. ENCODE 4 will intensify these efforts with greater breadth and depth and accelerate our understanding of genome regulation.”

At the data analysis center, Weng orchestrates the integrative analysis of ENCODE data and the synthesis of an encyclopedia of regulatory elements, a resource for the scientific community in the study of mammalian biology and the investigation of human health and disease.

In addition, she is part of the PsychENCODE project, an international research consortium that focuses on disease-related research of epigenomes of psychiatric disorders, such as bipolar, autism and schizophrenia.

In her lab at UMass Medical School, students and postdocs use computational methods to solve biological problems in the field of bioinformatics, studying the human genome by using mathematical computer algorithms.

“The human body is an elaborate device. My general approach to research is to use sophisticated computational and/or statistical approaches to understand how the human body and related model organism bodies work,” Weng said.

Weng said she is focused on projects such as evaluating regulatory proteins and their interactions, including transcription factors and their target DNAs; RNA- binding proteins and their target RNAs; small silencing RNAs and their target RNAs; and protein­protein interactions. 

“We’re interested in how genes are regulated. Different people may have different versions of the same gene and it will lead to differences in phenotypes and also susceptibility to diseases. If we could analyze population data, different individuals and their genotype, and differences in epigenomes, maybe we could relate these signals to the different phenotypes and susceptibility to diseases,” she said.

Weng said if researchers could figure out which genes are causal for a disease or identify elements that could regulate genes that ultimately could cause diseases, then that would help them to modulate the disease.

“For example, if you could use gene therapy to alter the regulatory regions and to correct or alleviate disease symptoms, even if you can’t eliminate the cause of the disease, you could help people with the disease,” she said.

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