Colorado State University Awarded W. M. Keck Foundation Grant to Research How and Why Genes are Activated

Colorado State University has been awarded a prestigious $1.2 million grant from the W. M. Keck Foundation to support a biomedical research program with the potential to revolutionize the life sciences. Research conducted by the university’s Program in Chromatin Structure and Function will create an unprecedented understanding of the control of the human genome and holds the promise of unlocking the secrets of an immense array of biological and medical processes including embryonic development, aging and cancer.

"The results of this research address fundamental but extraordinarily significant questions about how and why genes are activated. The research may well provide missing links in our knowledge of the most basic and yet unexplained questions in human development," said Larry Edward Penley, president of Colorado State University. "The opportunity offered by this research is rare. It is made possible by support from the W. M. Keck Foundation. The Keck Foundation grant does much more, however, than support the planned research into why one gene is activated and another is not; it encourages Colorado State University to seize this opportunity to extend its interdisciplinary research in proteomics and genomics."

To find answers to questions about genes, scientists at Colorado State have developed a collaboration that applies the techniques of structural biology and molecular genetics to address the basic question of how gene expression is regulated in a cellular context. The team’s research is building on the knowledge gained by the completion of the Human Genome Project and is providing a gateway for its practical application in science. This ability to apply a molecular understanding of human genome control mechanisms is anticipated to pave the way for unsurpassed advances in the biological sciences, physics, chemistry and other life sciences areas and could lead to major human health benefits.

"With great anticipation, the scientific community and the public looked forward to the completion of the DNA sequence of the human genome. However, knowledge of how individual cells of the body control which genes are active and which are not is still extremely limited, and without this knowledge, the applications of a decoded human genome are also limited," said Jennifer Nyborg, professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and one of the principal investigators of the Program in Chromatin Structure and Function. "This research will drive a fundamental leap forward in understanding the control of the genome, bringing us much closer to unlocking the secrets of an immense array of biological processes."

The Colorado State collaboration is applying cutting-edge techniques of structural biology and molecular genetics to address the basic question of how gene expression is regulated in a cellular context. Collectively, the team has developed a series of highly innovative and unique techniques that allow them to characterize the structural and biochemical changes within chromatin, a substance in cell nuclei comprised of genomic DNA and basic histone proteins. Chromatin is organized into chromosomes and mediates the activation of specific genes crucial in the control of cell growth, differentiation, and the establishment and maintenance of tissues.

"This ground-breaking program builds on the innovative and highly productive research programs of four world-renowned Colorado State faculty: Jennifer Nyborg, Karolin Luger, Paul Laybourn and Jeffrey Hansen," said Rick Miranda, dean of the College of Natural Sciences. "These four investigators have established a unique and synergistic collaboration, unduplicated in the United States, to understand the role of chromatin structure and dynamics in the control of gene expression that could lead to amazing human health implications."

Results of the team’s current and future studies will lead to advances in understanding gene activation in a chromatin context. The experimental systems developed in this program are anticipated to become the model for future analyses of numerous genes that contribute to developmental defects and genetic diseases.

"The knowledge derived from the studies conducted at the Program in Chromatin Structure and Function will significantly impact the future development of molecular therapies to treat a variety of disorders," said Norman Curthoys, chair of the biochemistry and molecular biology department. "Research findings generated from this project will form the paradigm for future studies that will greatly enhance the understanding and treatment of broad range of genetic defects and diseases."

The W. M. Keck Foundation grant is providing funds for advanced equipment and resource support for the chromatin research program at Colorado State. In honor of the foundation’s support, Colorado State is establishing the W. M. Keck Foundation X-Ray Diffraction Facility, the W. M. Keck Analytical Ultracentrifuge Facility and the W. M. Keck Protein Expression and Purification Center as part of the program. In support of this priority research, the university also provided an additional $1.2 million to augment the program.

The W. M. Keck Foundation is one of the nation’s largest philanthropic organizations. Established in 1954 by the late William Myron Keck, founder of The Superior Oil Company, the Foundation’s grant making is focused primarily on the areas of medical research, science and engineering. More information about the W.M. Keck Foundation is available online at