Epigenetics & Healthy Minds for a Lifetime

For January 9, 2019        
Hi WN@TL Fans,
I’m hard pressed to come up with three words that have spawned more intellectual bar brawls than “Nature versus Nurture.” The phrase is red meat for social scientists, behavioral scientists, and biologists alike.  
But even when a field can arrive at a Hegelian synthesis, researchers at first can be baffled at how to parse out the competing ideas about causes and mechanisms, whether at the level of populations or of molecules. Yet from such work may come ways to put the ideas & insights to work to help us live both better and longer
This week (January 9) John Denu of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery shares his research on the interplays between epigenetics and health.  The title of his presentation: “Healthy Minds for a Lifetime: From Molecules to Mindfulness.” 
Here’s how Professor Denu describes his talk:
The idea that a broad range of health outcomes is shaped by the complementary product of “nature” (inherited traits) and “nurture” (acquired traits) is now generally accepted. However, how genetics and external factors work together to yield a particular phenotype is only beginning to be understood at the molecular level. Emerging evidence suggests that these extrinsic factors can trump genetic predisposition, perhaps via altering the epigenome to prevent, attenuate, or delay disease onset. 
Understanding the molecular events underlying epigenetic contributions to human health will provide tremendous opportunity to improve both preventive measures and treatment options. Work in the Denu lab and at WID (Wisconsin Institute for Discovery) aims to reveal the molecular links between extrinsic factors and the epigenome. WID is particularly interested in the role played by the gut microbiome in brain function. Understanding the gut-brain axis is a major goal. How do gut microbial community composition, diet and lifestyle mediate epigenetic changes that alter brain function? 
WID has introduced a Grand Challenge called BrainSPAN 100, the goal of which is to maintain healthy brain function throughout the aspirational lifespan of 100 years. Pilot research projects of BrainSPAN 100 will be presented. During this presentation, Denu will call for public engagement to realize this goal, a type of Statewide crowdsourcing. What talents, resources or expertise can the public bring-to-bear to help reach this audacious goal? Some of the best solutions to today’s problems come from unanticipated sources.

About the Speaker:
John Denu is Professor of Biomolecular Chemistry in the School of Medicine and Public Health, and serves as Epigenetics and Multi-omics Hub leader in the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (WID). He is a member of the UW Carbone Cancer Center and an Affiliate member of the Morgridge Institute for Research. At WID, Denu has recruited new faculty members to campus and is building a transdisciplinary research effort on the molecular basis underlying epigenetic health.
Denu’s research has focused on novel regulation of metabolism, and of the epigenome, an acquired set of chemical instructions (on top of the genome) that mediate the relationship between genes and environment. Denu and his colleagues have discovered that the health benefits of reduced caloric intake are mediated by a novel regulatory mechanism in mitochondria that stimulates catabolism of fat and amino acids. His group has developed novel technologies to interrogate the ‘histone code’ idea of epigenetic phenotypes, and applied these tools to the study of cancer and diet-induced metabolic disorders. This work has revealed unique epigenetic fingerprints that may lead to new therapeutics. Denu also teaches courses in biochemistry and trains PHD students and Post-Doc fellows to become critical thinkers. Among other scholarly activities, Denu is an Associate Editor for the Journal of Biological Chemistry. He is a member of the scientific advisory board for BioTechne, FORGE Life Sciences, and is co-founder of Galilei BioSciences.

Denu is a native of Wisconsin and received his BS (1988) in Biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 1993, he earned his PhD (Biochemistry and Biophysics) from Texas A&M University in the laboratory of Paul Fitzpatrick. His PhD studies focused on the mechanistic understanding of Flavin-containing oxidases. From 1993-1996, Denu trained as a Post-doctoral Fellow at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. Working with Jack Dixon, Denu applied his skills as a biochemist-enzymologist to interrogate the molecular mechanisms and biological functions of protein phosphatases. In 1996, he accepted a tenure-track Assistant Professor position in the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department at Oregon Health and Sciences University (Portland), where he received tenure in 2002. Hearing the call of the Midwest, Denu was recruited back to the University of Wisconsin in 2003, where he is currently taking an interdisciplinary approach to understand how cells and organisms integrate chemical information in the context of genes and environmental interactions.


I hope you’ll join with me and with people all over Wisconsin in finding opportunities to help John speed the public engagement and statewide crowd-sourcing for the BrainSPAN 100 project.  
It’s an intriguing aspiration to ask what would it take to get our brains and minds happy and healthy to the age of 100.
Speaking of happy & healthy:
Next week (January 16) Hilary Shager of the Institute for Research on Poverty will be here to share IRP’s research to advance the understanding of the causes and consequences of poverty and inequality, and to find ways to reduce poverty and advance justice.  
Hope to see you soon at Wednesday Nite @ The Lab.
Tom Zinnen
Biotechnology Center & Cooperative Extension