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Jim Carrington

Jim Carrington,
Genome Research and Biocomputing

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Odds on Science

When Jim Carrington graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1986, he could not have gotten a job in his current field of research. It didn’t exist. The idea that cells routinely silence genes, their own and those of viruses and other invaders, was unknown. Since then, molecular biologists in Carrington’s lab and elsewhere have discovered a powerful natural mechanism of gene regulation. They have helped to launch a growing global research enterprise in what is known as "RNA silencing."

This mechanism is used by plants and animals to control their genes and defend against viruses, Carrington explains. If the silencing is disabled or knocked out, the functions of thousands of genes become disorganized, and organs and specific cell types do not form properly. And in plants, the silencing mechanism is a front–line defense against destructive viruses. The research has already provided new tools to spur medical science and to inhibit infectious viruses in plants and animals.

After receiving his Ph.D., Carrington specialized in viral genetics, but a series of discoveries about how plants respond to viruses led him to shift his attention to plants. "We made a very conscious decision over time, very painful in many ways, of shutting down things we knew how to do, and starting up things we didn’t know how to do," he says.

It wasn’t the first time that he had followed his instincts. He grew up in Southern California in a family of blue–collar photographers. His grandfather did wedding and personal portraits. His dad documented events for an aerospace corporation, and his uncle shot news photos for the Torrance Daily Breeze. So in high school, when the guidance counselor asked Jim and his mom about what academic program he would follow, she answered "vocational." But Jim had other plans and told them that he was heading down the college–prep track.

Carrington was the first in his family to go to college. And he credits much of his success to chance: his decision to follow a high school friend to study biology at the University of California, Riverside; the intervention of his mother’s pastor so he could attend a public university with a strong science program; a stint in a college lab that came after he turned down a job interview in a pizza restaurant.

Fortunately, the odds favored science. With active grants from the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and U.S. Department of Agriculture (currently totaling over $3 million), Carrington and his research team are teasing out the molecular details of RNA silencing. They contribute to a field whose most prominent scientists, Craig Mello and Andrew Fire, received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2006.

A Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Carrington now directs OSU’s Center for Genome Research and Biocomputing. Five recently hired faculty members and more than 100 OSU researchers affiliated with the CGRB focus on the idea that "the big questions in biology need to be asked at the whole genome level, not at the single gene or protein level," says Carrington.

Undergraduate students in Carrington’s lab also get a chance to explore those questions. They help to find the nuggets in massive gene datasets, sometimes ending up as lead authors on papers that help propel their careers. "Their scientific contributions are invaluable," says Carrington. "I have a soft spot in my heart for undergraduates who are committed to learning and working hard."

Jim Carrington’s Web site
Center for Gene Research and Biocomputing
OSU Foundation
National Institutes of Health
U.S. Department of Agriculture
National Science Foundation