Bacteria :: Bacteriologist tabbed for prestigious NIH research award

Richard L. Gourse, a professor of bacteriology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an expert on the critical early steps of gene expression, has received a prestigious MERIT award from the National Institutes of Health, which provides research funding for up to 10 years.

MERIT awards, short for Method to Extend Research in Time, are among the most selective research grants given by the NIH. Less than 5 percent of NIH-funded investigators are selected for the awards, which recognize researchers who have demonstrated superior competence and outstanding productivity in research endeavors of special importance or promise, according to the NIH.

With a team of research staff and graduate students, Gourse studies gene expression, the process by which a cell’s genes produce proteins that carry out the important functions of the cell. Because genes are responsible for determining all the characteristics of a cell, irregular gene expression can dramatically alter the fate of an organism.

Gourse’s research focuses on the mechanisms behind the first step of gene expression: transcription. Transcription is the transfer of genetic information found in DNA to an alternative form known as RNA, a process that must occur before proteins can be made. Understanding how this process is initiated and regulated is of fundamental importance to all biology.

“It’s very hard to fix a broken car if you don’t know how it is supposed to work in the first place. Auto mechanics are taught how cars should perform when running correctly so that when one breaks, they can understand what they need to do to fix the problem,” says Gourse. “Similarly, diseases can occur when gene expression is inappropriately initiated or regulated. If we understand how genes are transcribed under normal conditions, we will be better able to understand disease.”

Bacteria make excellent research subjects, says Gourse. Bacteria share the basic biochemical properties of cells from multi-cellular organisms like plants, animals, and humans. However, these single-celled organisms have very short generation times and can be produced in huge numbers. This greatly facilitates studying the complex molecular machines responsible for fundamental processes like transcription.

“Studying single-cell organisms enhances our understanding of the functions of all cells, even those contained in more complex systems,” says Glenn Chambliss, chair of the bacteriology department. “Dr. Gourse’s research on bacterial transcription may some day aid in disease prevention, diagnosis, or treatment. We are thrilled that the NIH is recognizing and supporting his important work with a MERIT award.”

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