Faculty Profile: Elizabeth Bartom, PhD, assistant professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics
The focus of her research is to better understand how cells properly and improperly function, as well as unraveling the mechanisms of how cells use the genome to encode information both genetically and epigenetically. She is a member of the Center for Genetic Medicine, the Northwestern University Clinical and Translational Science Institute (NUCATS) and the Simpson Querrey Center for Epigenetics.
What are your research interests?
I am interested in understanding how the genome is organized and used, and how this changes in response to evolutionary pressures, such as the development of cancer. Within this broad topic, I often focus my interest depending on the research goals of my many collaborators. I am a “dry lab” biologist – my research takes place purely on a computer. I leverage the many sources of public data that have been generated in various consortium projects, as well as the private data generated by collaborators to answer interesting biological questions. I am also interested in issues of data quality and reproducibility, and how we can double-check sample labels through data analysis. For example, to what extent can we learn what a sample is by studying the sample itself and its relation to known controls.
How did you become interested in this area of research?
When I was a child, my family moved to Europe. I went to school on an American army base and lived in a German village. I became very interested in language and culture, and the relationship between how things work and how they are encoded. In the early 90’s, I saw a PBS special called “The Secret of Life,” all about DNA and how it encoded all of life and decided that was the language I wanted to understand. Genomics felt to me like an opportunity to study the encoding of biological information in context – not just one gene at a time, but the whole genome, together. The human genome project was finished while I was in graduate school, but there was obviously a lot of work to be done in understanding the sequence and how it can give rise to a cell and an organism.
What types of collaborations are you engaged in across campus (and beyond)?
I am a team scientist faculty member, and I collaborate a lot. I have been working with Marcus Peter’s lab to better understand the phenomenon of DISE – Death Induced by Survival gene Elimination. Through this mechanism, short RNAs are loaded into the RISC, targeting a wide variety of essential mRNAs for degradation. Although we first discovered short RNAs derived from the CD95L / Fas ligand gene, triggering this process, it can be triggered by other sequences as well. We are working to understand the role of DISE in other cytotoxic contexts, such as in chemotherapy and neurodegeneration.
I also collaborate with the Shilatifard lab, working to understand the role that mutations in core epigenetic and transcriptional machinery can play in driving cancer. We use sequencing technologies such as ChIP-seq and RNA-seq to understand both the localization of wildtype and mutant proteins in the cell and the cell’s transcriptional profile, and the relationship between these two types of profiles. Comparing healthy and diseased cells and perturbing them both genetically and pharmaceutically provides insight into the molecular basis of cancer, which can lead to new cancer therapies.
My collaborations generally fit into one of two patterns – either I directly analyze data generated by a wet lab collaborator, or I mentor a trainee with wet lab expertise in how to pick up the computational skills required to start doing some of their own computational analysis.
How is your research funded?
The majority of my research is funded by an NCI R50 grant. This is an innovative funding mechanism intended specifically for collaborative researchers who provide a special expertise to existing NCI-funded research programs. It’s a five-year, renewable grant, and it has been a great funding mechanism for me to provide computational and genomic expertise to interdisciplinary teams of cancer researchers. In addition, I am a co-investigator on several non-cancer grants, and co-director of the Biostatistics and Bioinformatics Core for the Brain Tumor SPORE grant.