Genetics permeates our modern culture. From grade school, students now understand the fundamentals of molecular genetics—that physical characters, from the colour of our eyes to the shape of a pea, are determined by packets of information we call “genes.” Many even know that genes are made up of DNA, that differences between gene copies—“alleles”—make up an organism’s “genotype”, and that the characteristics they lead to are called “phenotypes.”
Surprisingly, though, we still do not really understand how genotypes and phenotypes are connected. Several different projects in the laboratory of Dr. Thomas Merritt, Canada Research Chair in Genomics and Bioinformatics, are investigating this connection by looking at different organisms, from microbes to fruit flies to fish.
Merritt’s research explores biological diversity and its underlying genetic architecture by combining bioinformatics—the computer-based examination of gene, genotype and genome (all the genes in an organism)—with functional genomics, or direct manipulation and experimentation.
In one project, student researchers are using genetically engineered fruit flies to investigate how their metabolism affects things such as how long they live and how much fat they store. In another project, Merritt’s team is looking at the genome of an entire community of microbes able to thrive in contaminated mine waste, in the hopes of understanding the community’s metabolic potential.
Knowing that genetic interactions are complex and sometimes counterintuitive, Merritt’s team is developing a better understanding of molecular complexity and protein function in order to tackle a wide range of challenges, from metabolic disease to biological stress to industrial waste clean-up.