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Photo Hopkins Nancy Hopkins

NANCY HOPKINS is the Amgen, Inc. Professor of Biology at MIT. As an undergraduate, Hopkins attended Harvard University, where Dr. James Watson- who, together with Francis Crick, discovered the structure of DNA- introduced her to the study of genetics. In 1971, she obtained her Ph.D., also from Harvard University.

Research in Hopkins' lab seeks to identify the genetic basis of early developmental processes and simple behaviors in the zebrafish. This work could shed light on human genes, physiology and birth defects.

Hopkins also spearheaded an ongoing effort to address discrimination against women at MIT. The administration has taken steps to address the problems revealed by Hopkins' campus-wide study into the matter. Hopkins' efforts received national attention and were lauded by President Clinton.


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Hopkins responds :

10.24.01 Malarie asks:
You said that you hoped genes would be available for everyone. How would these genes work? Would we have to inject them before before birth? Or would we be able to use them as adults to correct congenital defects?

Hopkins's response:
I used the word 'gene' a bit sloppily to cover two things: A gene OR the protein coded for by a gene. As you may know, some proteins (which are the products of genes) are already used to treat human diseases. Often proteins that can be used this way are those that circulate in the blood. For example, certain hormones. These can be given to adults or children and will correct certain defects or treat particular illnesses.

In some cases, this does not work however, usually because the protein is one that is needed inside cells. In this case one might have to cure a person by correcting their defective genes in one or more cell types. To do this would require gene therapy. This topic was also discussed on the Scientific American Frontiers program. While not yet a readily available technology, most people fully expect that gene therapy will ultimately become a reality.

10.28.01 Jackie asks:
What are the functions of some of the genes you've located? Have you found genes that correlate to common human birth defects?

Hopkins's response:
We have identified genes with many types of functions: Some code for proteins that regulate the expression of other genes, some are needed to help cells divide, some are required for protein synthesis, some are enzymes, some are receptors that sit on the surface of cells and receive signals from outside, some are involved in interactions between cells.

As for your second question, Yes! For example, we identified a gene mutated in an inherited form of human diabetes, and another involved in cartilage formation and in mental retardation.

10.27.01 Sean asks:
Are some genes more susceptible to mutation than others? For example: are the genes that regulate brain development more or less likely to mutate than the genes that regulate something seemingly more trivial, like coloration?

Hopkins's response:
Some genes are more susceptible to mutation. However, this depends on the structure of the gene itself. For example, very big genes may be more likely to be damaged by mutations, or genes with certain types of DNA sequences may be damaged more readily. This is not related to the biological function of the gene however.

10.28.01 Polly asks:
What virus do you use to mutate the fish genes? Is it an engineered virus? Or one that naturally infects zebra fish? When you first began conducting your research, was it difficult to purposefully inject your fish with a mutation-causing virus? Though I fully understand the positive implications for science with your research, how do respond to animal rights' advocates criticisms of causing mutations in your fish?

Hopkins's response:
The virus we use is an engineered mouse retrovirus. This particular virus would not have met up with a fish in the wild.

I would say two things in reply to the second issue: 1) One of the nice things about working with fish is that the embryos develop externally and so one does not have to sacrifice the mother to have access to the mutants. Only embryos up to 5-6 days of age display the mutant properties and then they are discarded painlessly. 2) The conditions required for working with laboratory animals are very strict as you probably know. We often refer to our faciltiy as the fish Ritz. Not only are we required to use humane conditions in working with the animals, but for our scientific work, our fish must be maintained at the highest posisble level. Water quality is monitored daily, the fish are fed three times each day, and tanks are cleaned constantly. Life expectancy for a fish in our facility is probably much higher than in nature, and much much higher than in the average home aquarium.

10.30.01 Tina asks:
Why do most of the mutations result in death? Does that make is easier or hardier to identify the function of the gene?

Hopkins's response:
The defects we can find are visible in a microscope at quite low magnification. Thus, they are quite severe. This may explain why most of them are also lethal. This makes them neither easier nor harder to identify. About the same either way.

10.30.01 John asks:
Do you feel that as a woman scientist you bring something different to the discipline of genetics?

Hopkins's response:
I have always felt that women and men think about and do science the same way. However, on average, I would say that the styles of behavior of men and women scientists are a bit different. Men often seem more driven by competition and winning, women more driven by a passion for the subject. I have wondered whether, if there were more women in science, it would be more collaborative. I have often wondered whether in that case cancer might already have been cured, for example. Competition is great to a point, but it can also get in the way of progress

11.01.01 Richard asks:
Do you plan to study the single-cell to multicellular process in other organisms as part of your research? If so, what other organisms might you consider?

Hopkins's response:
Comparative studies are extremely informative. However, we are more likely to do such studies by collaboration with other labs or by literature searching instead of experimentation in our own lab. We have our hands full with the fish. Many other organisms are useful, but we would probably be most interested in the mouse.

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