Local researchers to watch in 2010

Sheng Ding, associate professor of chemistry at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) was responsible for one of the biggest scientific discoveries reported in 2009: a method to convert adult cells all the way back to the most primitive embryoniclike cells without using the dangerous genetic manipulations associated with previous methods.

The new technique solved one of the most challenging safety hurdles associated with personalized stem cell-based medicine. The life sciences magazine The Scientist named the pioneering discovery the top innovation of 2009 and in addition placed Ding among the top researchers of the year. Keep an eye on Ding and his TSRI lab as well as the San Diego-based company he founded (Fate Therapeutics), which uses the technology platform.

  • Time magazine has ranked the mapping of the first human epigenome, led by Salk Institute researcher Joseph Ecker, as the No. 2 scientific discovery of 2009.

The epigenome, a layer of biochemical reactions that turns genes on and off, plays a significant role in health and here-dity. For example, environmental factors can make chan-ges to the epigenome that are then passed on to subsequent generations. This explains, in part, differences in "identical" twins and why women malnourished during pregnancy who give birth to low birth-weight children are likely to also have low birth-weight grandchildren. Using the new high-resolution maps as a research tool, Ecker's group will now examine how the epigenome changes during normal development as well as examining a variety of disease states.

  • For 20 days last August, worldwide media was focused on the Scripps Institute of Oceanography Seaplex voyage to the North Pacific Gyre, a thousand miles off the California coast. There a research team, led by SIO graduate student Miriam Goldstein, conducted extensive sampling of small pieces of plastic alarmingly found in this remote part of the ocean.

There is little scientific information available on the composition, extent, and effects of the debris on marine and bird life. That's about to change. Within the next several months, Goldstein will begin presenting an analysis and with it answers to how much plastic is accumulating, how is it distributed, and how is it affecting ocean life. This critical, timely data will enable the scientific community and policymakers to formulate strategies for solving this new and pressing environmental problem.

  • Michael B. A. Old-stone, professor and head of the Viral-Immunobiology Laboratory at The Scripps Research Institute is a leader in his field, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and has served on national and international committees charged with understanding, treating and eliminating viral diseases.

He is also the author of the critically acclaimed book Viruses, Plagues, and History: Past, Present and Future. Readable books about viruses by experts are few and far between. Originally published in 1998, last year the book was reissued as a revised and expanded edition. Now that's staying power. But don't take my word for it. Oldstone will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Jan. 30, at D.G.Wills Books, 7461 Girard Ave., La Jolla.

  • Amy Trujillo, a biologist with the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy (SELC), is one of 40 individuals nationwide selected as a TogetherGreen Fellow.
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