FROM THE VICE PRESIDENT
Sidebar: Are oceans becoming acidic?
LOST LEWIS AND CLARK
Sidebar: Neurons get their close-up
Sidebar: Core facility models molecules
A HAZARDOUS WORLD
Sidebar: Genes, the environment and you
Cover: An illustration of UM's Main Hall tower bathed in the glow of a fictitious smoldering Earth.
Vision is published annually by The University of Montana Office of the Vice President for Research and Development and University Relations. It is printed by UM Printing & Graphic Services.
PUBLISHER: Daniel J. Dwyer. MANAGING EDITOR AND GRAPHIC DESIGNER: Cary Shimek. PHOTOGRAPHER: Todd Goodrich. CONTRIBUTING EDITORS: Brianne Burrowes, Brenda Day, Judy Fredenberg, Joan Melcher, Rita Munzenrider, Patia Stephens and Alex Strickland. WEB DESIGN: Patia Stephens. EDITORIAL OFFICE: University Relations, Brantly Hall 330, Missoula, MT 59812, 406-243-5914. MANAGEMENT: Judy Fredenberg, Office of the Vice President for Research and Development, 116 Main Hall, Missoula, MT 59812, 406-243-6670.
the environment and you
People spent decades working side by side producing asbestos-laced vermiculite at Libby’s defunct mine. Some got sick quickly and others didn’t, and Associate Professor Liz Putnam wants to know why.
“If the exposure is theoretically the same,” Putnam says, “then the difference has to be in their genetics and how they react to that exposure.”
She says asbestos exposure is bad for everyone, but some people may have genetic variations that give them a higher risk of developing asbestos-related diseases. Conversely, other workers’ DNA may have delayed those diseases.
“There is a whole continuum where genes may play more or less of a role in how a disease develops,” she says. “Many diseases have a genetic component combined with an environmental trigger.”
How people respond to an environmental exposure such as asbestos may depend on polymorphisms in their genes. Putnam says a polymorphism is a DNA mutation present in greater than 1 percent of the population that changes how a protein is made.
“These minor inherited traits affect how proteins interact with one another,” she says. “Sometimes that may be good for you; sometimes it’s not.”
Putnam’s lab uses mouse models to study what diseases develop when exposed to asbestos from the Libby mine, as well as genes involved in the asbestos-response pathway. She says if they can discover the polymorphisms associated with the key genes, clues may be found for therapies that interfere with protein forms that cause problems.
“Once we know what genes to look at from our animal model,” she says, “then we can go to human samples to see if there is some correlation between certain polymorphisms and disease outcomes in those folks. The answer might be there.”