Cavs Science Club Welcomes Back Spalding Alumni, Dr. William Kelly

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Catcher Salazar, Writer, Club Ambassador

This past March, the Cavs Science Club hosted Dr. William Kelly, a full professor at Emory University, where he teaches and leads the Kelly Research Lab. Dr. Kelly was happy to return to his alma mater, as he had graduated from Martin Spalding High School in 1977. 

Dr. Kelly spoke to the club about his illustrious career, which included going from Spalding to Belmont Abbey College, to UMBC for a Master of Science Degree, to Johns Hopkins for his PhD in Biochemistry, and finally to the Carnegie Institute of Embryology, where he was a postdoctoral researcher under Andy Fire, a Nobel Laureate. All this culminated in his appointment as a professor in the biology department of Emory University.

At Emory, Dr. Kelly researches the crossroads of multiple fields, investigating how epigenetic regulation can affect gene expression in embryonic development, and how epigenetic regulation in embryonic germ (reproductive) cells can lead to traits seen throughout multiple generations–transgenerational epigenetic inheritance. As an example, he referenced a famous observation in which the grandchildren of pregnant women involved in the Dutch Hunger Winter actually had increased rates of diabetes and obesity. The Dutch Hunger Winter was when the Nazis imposed strict rationing on a Dutch population as punishment, during which detailed records of births were kept. The mother, who actually experienced the near-starvation, held a fetus, which in turn held cells that were destined to become reproductive cells–the third generation, or the grandchildren. So through epigenetic regulation–heritable changes in gene expression or physical traits without direct DNA sequence alteration–these grandchildren exhibited traits that were derived from the experiences of their grandmother. 

Dr. Kelly gave the club valuable insight into the molecular mechanisms of epigenetics. He explained that epigenetics can essentially be thought of as an overlay to our DNA. In its typical state, DNA is organized as chromatin, in which DNA is wrapped around histone proteins, which are further organized into nucleosomes–groups of eight histones. These nucleosomes are organized into the characteristic ‘X’ shape of chromosomes. This architecture provided by the nucleosomes and histones limits the access of cellular machinery to DNA, and accordingly limits expression of certain genes, as genes cannot be expressed when the proteins cannot access them. Enter epigenetic regulation. Histones can be modified through epigenetic marks such as methylation, which is essentially when the protein is tagged with an organic chemical compound that can control its conformation. These marks can control how tightly the DNA is wound around the histones, thus allowing certain genes to be expressed or inhibited. Epigenetic regulation has been shown to be influenced by environmental factors, such as nutrition. And as the Dutch Hunger Winter case study suggested, when these epigenetic marks occur in the germline, transgenerational phenotypes can result.

There are still many questions in this field, Dr. Kelly explained. Regardless of these questions, the members of the Cavs Science Club were more than happy to listen to Dr. Kelly about his cutting-edge research.