November 20, 2003

O'Brien Ph.D. '71 Speaks on Genetics Studies

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Stephen O’Brien Ph.D. ’71 started his genetic studies here at Cornell looking at fruit flies. Yesterday, he came back to tell students and faculty alike that “it is an exciting time to be a geneticist.”

O’Brien is chief of the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity at the National Cancer Institute and his expertise is highly renowned. He has mapped over 100 human genes, published over five hundred scientific articles and cofounded New Opportunities in Animal Health Science, which is a group of scientists and apprentices working towards species conservation using biomedical technology. Last September his new book Tears of the Cheetah; And Other Tales From the Genetic Frontier was released. According to its back cover, it “explores the mysteries of survival among the earth’s most endangered and beloved wildlife.”

O’Brien was brought to Cornell by the A.D. White Professors-at-Large Program, which according to the press release “brings distinguished scholars to the Cornell campus for formal and informal exchanges with faculty and students.” O’Brien arrived in Ithaca Monday and will be here until the Nov. 22 to guest speak to genetics and biochemistry classes. Administrative Assistant Lindsay Welsh, plant breeding said, ” [I saw] a good opportunity to tie in genomics since he was going to be here already,” so she arranged to have him speak in Emerson Hall.

O’Brien spoke to over 100 people, approximately half students and half faculty. Doug Antczak, D. Havermeyer McConville Professor of Equine Medicine and director of the Baker Institute, speculated that the audience consisted of animal science and microbiology majors along with many members of the biology faculty. Welsh was not surprised at the heavy turnout, and said, “I knew ahead of time this guy was really well-liked.”

After a brief introduction by McConville, O’Brien launched into his lecture. With no notes other than a power point presentation, O’Brien spoke for an hour with barely a pause. He was a vibrant speaker and was clearly enthusiastic about the subject matter. The audience members reciprocated his excitement by giving him their full attention.

He began with his recollection of Cornell back in the 1960s where he was a student in a brand new field, genetics. Now, he said, “the ability to collect [genetic data] has far outpaced our ability to analyze it.”

Next he summarized the Human Genome Project, which is the study to map the entire human genetic code. This work was finished earlier this year and cost a total of 2.6 billion dollars. According to O’Brien, the geneticists found 2.8 billion base pairs and 24,000-30,000 genes. Even with the project’s completion, there are still a lot of unanswered questions, such as how, where and why genes function; where genes come from and how they are regulated. O’Brien said, “All those questions can be addressed in one way or another by comparative biology.”

Comparative genetics began in the 1970s. Scientist compared mouse gene maps to the human gene map and found many similar segments within the code. In fact, O’Brien said, “They found 330 chunks [of genetic code] in the mouse genome similar to human.”

O’Brien explained how comparative genetics can be used to map evolution. He has been a part of studies that traced the development of animals genes and when their genetic splits occurred.

Next he talked about his involvement in the Feline Genome Project, which is the study to map a cat’s genetic code. O’Brien said, “We have collected tissues of cats throughout the world.” He explained how they have tracked the genetic development of eight different lineages of cat from the domestic cat to the Asian leopard. The study has compared the cat genome to the human genome. According to O’Brien, “It only takes ten scissor cuts to map the cat into the human genome.”

He also stated: “The cat has some interesting infectious diseases that are relevant to humans.” Specifically, FIV, which is the feline version of HIV, is relevant. O’Brien was part of the discovery of the CCR5-delta32 gene, which is the first human gene not to allow the HIV virus to infect its cells.

He went on to discuss other small projects in comparative genetics. One group is looking at specific genes that appear across the human, cat and mouse genetic codes. Another project is a group within the National Human Genome Research Institute that is choosing the next animal to be coded. Those up for nomination are the elephant, bat, whale, platypus and tree shrew.

O’Brien’s display of enthusiasm and expertise proved why Eric Lander, principal scientist and leader of the International Human Genome Project would say, “Stephen O’Brien is a national treasure.”

Archived article by Casey Holmes