Alumnus Gregg wins prestigious prize

University of Lethbridge alumnus, Dr. Christopher Gregg (BSc '98), captured the 2010 Grand Prize in the annual international competition for The Eppendorf & Science Prize for Neurobiology.

Gregg is being recognized for his outstanding contributions to research on how the parental origin of a gene affects its expression in the developing and adult brains of offspring.

"My interests are now focused on determining whether maternal and/or paternal gene expression programs in offspring are altered according to stresses and environmental effects experienced by parents," says Gregg, a postdoctoral fellow in the Molecular and Cellular Biology Department at Harvard University. "This is an exciting possibility that could reveal pathways that prepare offspring for the environment into which they will be born."

As the grand prize winner, Gregg receives $25,000 from Eppendorf, and his essay, Parental Control over the Brain, will be published in the November issue of the journal Science. Gregg will join the University of Utah as an assistant professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy next year.

In his award-winning essay, Gregg explains how he and his team at Harvard sort out how mother- and father-specific genetic cues influence their offspring's brains. Gregg describes how the team developed a genome-wide approach to study these parental effects on different regions of the brain during various developmental stages.

Through experiments with mice, they document how rare, epigenetic marks on certain maternal and paternal genes—known as genome imprints—affect the timing of gene expression in the next generation. For example, these researchers have identified approximately 553 genes that are subject to these parental genome imprints at day 15 of embryonic development and just 372 genes under the influence of such parental effects in the adult brain.

"Genes that preferentially express one parent's copy can be especially vulnerable to the presence of a mutation, because the other copy that doesn't have the mutation isn't being expressed, so there is no backup," says Gregg. "This phenomenon is especially obvious in males with diseases involving mutations on the X chromosome. In females, these diseases tend to be less severe, because females have two X chromosomes, but males have only one."

His findings reveal some of the specific parental effects associated with brain development and diseases, such as multiple sclerosis—and they provide a roadmap for future research in this field.

"I believe these effects have major relevance for our understanding of brain evolution, function, and disease," says Gregg.

The Eppendorf and Science Prize in Neurobiology recognizes outstanding international neurobiological research based on current methods and advances in the field of molecular and cell biology by a young early-career scientist.