What are you Driven to Discover?
We are driven to discover (and characterize) genetic factors allowing us to appropriately manage essential, but yet potentially toxic, metal nutrients within our cells and body. Of our particular interests are zinc and iron.
What is the impact of your research in your field?
Zinc and iron are essential to virtually all living organisms. Yet, uncontrolled flux of these metals into our system can be detrimental. Dysregulation in cellular and systemic homeostasis of metal nutrients have direct association with many disorders, including anemia and neurodegeneration, and may lead to impaired immune functions. My research primarily focuses on the genes required for the precise control of metal acquisition, distribution, and export in the central nervous and hematological systems. We expect our studies to not only provide insights on how our body functions with metals but also reveal novel therapeutic targets for diseases caused by or associated with aberrant metal metabolism.
How can people see the impact of your research on everyday life?
Advances in genetics allow us to screen for mutations in an individual’s gene set at the genome level. Yet, understanding the function and regulation of each gene is fundamental to predict the (patho)physiological implications of any identified mutation. We employ cell culture and animal models of modulated gene expression to determine mechanistic features of specific metal-related genes under relevant physiological settings. Our ultimate goal is to facilitate the development of tools for accurate translation of genetic information into dietetic or clinical applications.
What drew you to your field of study?
Prior to my graduate training, I worked for a major food company, where I gained large interests in functional food components. With these and my undergraduate training in Biotechnology, I joined the research team of Dr. Robert J. Cousins, a pioneer of nutrient-gene interactions, at the University of Florida. There, I studied the molecular and biochemical aspects of mammalian zinc metabolism and physiology. These allowed me to appreciate the power of Nutritional Genomics, art of genetics, and the regulatory properties of metal nutrients. These lessons yet serve as the primary factors driving my enthusiasm in nutrition research.
What is your favorite research/lab tool and why?
The lab is equipped with a near-infrared imager for scanning western blot images. This instrument allows us to simultaneously detect two different proteins, and quantify each with a dynamic range wider than that of a traditional detection method using horseradish peroxidase and X-ray film. Such features substantially improve the efficiency and reproducibility of protein works in our lab.
What is your greatest research accomplishment?
I have a few stories on zinc and iron metabolism published in research journals considered high-impact (including AJCN, PNAS and JCI). Yet, I recognize my very first publication in the Journal of Nutrition as the greatest accomplishment from my research career. The studies discovered the zinc transporter proteins expressed in membranes of immature and mature red blood cells, and their regulations during erythroid development and by dietary zinc status.