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Changing the landscape of genetics research

Professor Charles Boone awarded 2014 Edward Novitski Prize

The Genetics Society of America has given the 2014 Edward Novitski Prize to University of Toronto Professor Charles Boone.

The prestigious award, named after a pioneering American geneticist, recognizes exceptional ingenuity in genetics research.

Boone and his colleagues invented a method to discover and map gene interactions among the thousands of genes that make up an organism’s genome. Their technology — synthetic genetic array (SGA) analysis — allows researchers to test the potential for genes to work together as pairs. Because this technology is automated, it can test millions of possible gene combinations to generate a survey of genome-wide genetic interactions. 

“It’s a wonderful honour, especially since it recognizes some very accomplished scientists from many different fields of genetics,” said Boone, a professor in the Terrence Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research and the Department of Molecular Genetics. “Our work is highly collaborative, so this award is really a shared honour.”

Boone developed SGA technology in yeast — a single-celled organism with a quarter as many genes as humans. Yeast offers an excellent model for understanding the general principles underlying human genetics and disease. Researchers have since adapted SGA-like approaches for other systems, including human cells, and are using them to explore therapies for cancer and many other diseases.

Over more than 10 years, Boone’s team detailed their major insights into the breadth and organization of yeast genetic interactions in three papers published in the journal Science. Together, other researchers have cited those papers more than 3,600 times.

Professor Brenda Andrews is the director of the Donnelly Centre, and her lab has collaborated with the Boone lab for years. Andrews said that in order to reap the benefits of the human genome project, researchers must understand how genetic variation and interactions influence disease phenotypes — the observable qualities that result from the interaction of genes and environment.

“Dr. Boone's invention of methods that automate yeast genetics has allowed his group to map the first genetic interaction network or wiring diagram for a cell,” said Andrews. “These diagrams lay the essential groundwork for understanding how genes interact in complex diseases, and will guide the development of new ways to treat illness.”

Boone and his colleagues have almost mapped a complete genetic interaction network for yeast, examining all genes and testing about 18 million pairs. The results, said Boone, show that interactions between genes are highly prolific and can be assembled into a global genetic network that provides a comprehensive view of gene function.

(Image at right: a genome-wide genetic interaction map of a yeast cell. Genes with similar biological processes cluster together, revealing pathways that define their function.)

These findings point to a need for human genetic studies with the statistical power to find combinations of genetic variants that contribute to inherited diseases — a challenge Boone and other labs are already exploring.

The Novitski Prize is one of five awards the Genetics Society of America grants yearly.

“These awards provide an annual opportunity for the genetics community to recognize those individuals whose superb achievements have advanced the science of genetics,” said Vicki Chandler, the society’s president. “On behalf of GSA, I thank each of the award winners for a lasting contribution to the field.”

Jim Oldfield is a writer with the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto,