By Nicholas Bainbridge
Editor in Chief
Drs. Cindy and Patrick Vigueira, assistant professors of the High Point University Biology Department, are working to analyze the tangible impact that genomes have on organisms. Their goal is to determine which sets of genes correspond to the development of particular physical traits.
Scientists determine the cause of organism’s’ physical characteristics by examining patterns in their gene distributions. If a particular genome is more prevalent among a group of flowers with red petals, then it would indicate that this gene is tied to the petal color.
Due to the high number of genes in organisms, it requires a substantial sample size and the genome to be examined. These demands emphasize why a program that assists in the speedy analysis of many genes is instrumental.
Blocbuster, a program that facilitates the mapping of DNA for further research analysis, allows scientists to form hypotheses about groups of genomes based on their appearance.
“Blocbuster is a unique algorithm that identifies patterns in genetic data,” said Dr. Cindy Vigueira. “We can then ask whether those patterns are associated more often with individuals that have a trait of interest. These associations could help us identify genes that are involved in a trait that were missed by previous methods.
These genes are often missed because they might only contribute a small amount to the phenotype, but a set of these small impact genes can have a large impact when all are present.”
“If we identify new genes that are involved in a trait, that information could be used to better understand how a trait works,” said Dr. Patrick Vigueira. “This basic science could be used to develop better treatments for human diseases or new ways to improve crops.”
In one of their projects, the Vigueiras are working with HPU students like Alex Wirth, a junior pursuing a computer science degree. They are examining patterns of genomes in rice to determine what impact they have on the physical features of the crop. This would allow them to breed genes that can make crops more fruitful and resistant to pests.
“I am trying to see which sections of rice DNA will influence the appearance of certain phenotypes, such as the color of the seeds and how tall they grow,” said Alex Wirth. “If we can figure out the right patterns, we might be able to develop seeds that will produce more.”
The Vigueiras are also working with Brendan McCabe, an exercise science major, to examine the genes of athletes. Their objective for this project is to determine which genes are related to athletic excellence. This study may give insight for athletes interested in taking advantage of their inherent abilities.
The Vigueiras expect Blocbuster to continue being an asset in their research. They believe that it can be applied to far more areas of study than rice and athletic performance. It has the potential to serve a use in medical research, informing people who are susceptible to various genetic conditions.
“We can use Blocbuster to look for genes that may be involved in any trait of interest,” said Dr. Cindy Vigueira. “There is a plethora of genome-wide association studies that have produced data sets for thousands of traits of interest. We are mining this data for additional patterns that have not been identified in previous studies.”
Many of their assistants were previously in their classes and expressed interest in the research. The professors are grateful for their students’ efforts.
“I love working with undergraduate students on these types of projects,” said Dr. Cindy Vigueira.” The students contribute interesting ideas and help keep me motivated to pursue new lines of inquiry.”
The Vigueiras plan to complete the initial analysis phase of their current data by the end of the spring semester. They will present their findings at the HPU Research and Creativity Symposium on April 21. However, they will continue to study the connections between genes and physical traits into the next year if their research begins to yield results.