Roughly half of the human genome has its origins in retrograde elements – components of the eukaryotic genome that are able to be packaged via intermediate RNA into other parts of genomic DNA, where they can be inserted.
After two and a half decades of research on the enzyme responsible for maintaining the integrity of telomere DNA during reproduction, Kathleen Collins of the University of California at Berkeley has expanded her research to focus on genetic elements in eukaryotes. Collins’ journey into this largely unexplored field began about five years ago, after she and her colleagues came up with long-term insights in their search for telomerase.
“Our time studying telomerase has provided us with experience, for example, with a better understanding of protein-RNA interactions, and we wanted to see if we could answer questions about retroelements using our knowledge of telomerase,” Collins said.
For her contributions to telomerase and the RNA field, Collins will receive the 2022 Earl and Teresa Stadtmann Distinguished Scientist Award from the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, which recognizes outstanding achievements in basic research.
Collins comes from a family of academics. However, her interest in biology stemmed from a love of STEM as well as learning and the pursuit of truth. As a researcher and educator, Collins encourages her students to constantly put themselves in the path of information—for example, at conferences and office hours or with experts and peers—because one never knows where their best lessons will come from.
“The number of ideas I have in my business that have come from lecturing or preparing to teach, is huge,” she said. “That’s why I think teaching and research go well together.”
Collins, as a mentor, enjoys sharing tips; She motivates her students to highlight themselves in relation to the sciences, reminding them that they do not need to be shy or worry about imposing as long as they are respectful. One of the slogans she shares with students: “No question is too stupid, except for one that doesn’t get answered.”
Investigation of retroelements in the eukaryotic genome
In the context of evolution, retro elements can be described as opportunistic genetic elements that carry themselves as passengers in the genomes of their hosts. As humans evolved, these elements have been silenced to preserve the integrity of our genomes; However, a large number is still present in our DNA.
After many years of investigating telomerase, including its specific mechanisms on the chromosome, Kathleen Collins and her lab noticed its association with retroelements.
“It is critical to think of telomerase as an ribonucleoprotein because it is a combination of protein and RNA,” Collins said. “Telomerase is the selfless version of what we see with eukaryotic retro elements.”
The Collins Laboratory is paving the way in eukaryotic retro-element research, with a particular focus on non-terminal repetitive reverse transcriptase of retro-elements and their nucleoprotein complexes. Collins hopes to harness the targeting specificity observed in these enzymes for future use in gene therapy.
In addition to her funding sources, Collins attributes her research success to the members of her lab and to the Berkeley Innovation and Entrepreneurship System.