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The splice of life

Dr Lorena Fernández-Martínez

The science of genetics emerged over the course of the 20th Century, drawing on revolutionary work by Mendel, Crick and Watson, among others. A fascination with the human genome project, launched in 1990, was Dr Lorena Fernández-Martínez’s gateway to this brave new world. With so much yet to discover, she set out on her own genetic research journey.

Dr Lorena Fernández-Martínez

When Gregor Mendel, a monk with a passion for science, described his pea plants experiments and his observations on characteristic inheritance in 1866, he was largely ignored. Mendel soon returned to the monastic life.

When his work was rediscovered, 35 years later, it ushered in what has been termed the century of genetics, as technical and theoretical advances allowed scientists to get ever closer to revealing the elusive physical determinant of who we are. It was in these early days that the term ‘gene’, and thus the science of genetics, was coined by Wilhelm Johannsen. It was, at that point, more of a concept than an actual physical structure, though.

But the journey to find the secrets of life had begun. Taking in chromosomes, white-eyed vinegar flies, X-Rays, crystallography, proteins, viruses, and DNA, it twisted and turned, before culminating in Francis Crick and James Watson’s final twist: the double helix.

This is, of course, a much-simplified overview of how we came to understand genetic expression, heredity and the role of genetic variation in evolution. You can read the full story in Life’s Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code by Matthew Cobb, a rollercoasting true-life mystery, recommended bedtime reading by Dr Lorena Fernández-Martínez, Reader in Microbial Genetics.

Or you can study “the instruction manual of life”, as Dr Fernández-Martínez frames it, by signing up for our BSc (Hons) Genetics. Maybe you’ll do both.

Dr Fernández-Martínez’s introduction to the world of genetics came via a fascination with the human genome project, and how there is still so much we don’t understand. To any self-respecting scientist, that is a metaphorical gauntlet being thrown down.

She continued with her studies at university, developing her lifelong interest in “the wonderful Streptomyces bacterial genus, it’s complex biology and intricate regulatory pathways which lead to the production of many useful compounds such as antibiotics.”

Her postgraduate research career, prior to joining the Edge Hill Biology team saw her working on signal transduction, genome sequencing and proteome analysis in Actinobacteria. She worked at Norwich’s John Innes Centre on the regulation of antibiotics, including chloramphenicol, cinnamycin and the medically relevant gene cluster leading to the production of the novel lantibiotic microbisporicin. Her current research is focused on understanding the complex regulatory pathways that lead to antibiotic production in Actinobacteria, as well as the study of the regulation of resistance mechanisms in antibiotic producing bacteria, the likely source of clinically relevant antibiotic resistance.

Like peeling an onion, Genetics constantly reveals new layers for exploration:

“That’s what hooked me about genetics and it still fascinates me. Genetics is about understanding the instructions that make life, and there’s so much we still don’t understand. There have been many exciting and important discoveries in the last century, but I’d say that the development of DNA sequencing technologies has been one of the most important breakthroughs in the genetics field. It has allowed us to “read” the book of life, although we still need to perfect the language in which is written.”

Dr Lorena Fernández-Martínez

So, what does it take to return to the lab day after day, more in hope than expectation:

An image of multiple people working in a lab

“You have to be organised and resilient, as experiments need careful planning, and they are likely to fail (we’re working with living organisms, after all). So you have to plan your time to be prepared to repeat experiments several times and learn to cope with the disappointment when they fail. But it’s the most amazing feeling when your experiment works and you know you’re the first person in the world to know the answer.”

And while Lorena absolutely admits to being able to see further because she does her research sitting on the shoulders of giants, she believes that working in the scientific research community has been the most valuable working experience:

An image of Petri dish

“There are too many scientists I admire to list here, but I’d say the ones I admire the most are those who have been my mentors and collaborators over the years, for sharing their experiences, knowledge, and making working in the genetics field such a fantastic experience.”

And to illustrate the breadth and potential of this exciting field, the research of Dr Fernández-Martínez’s colleagues include innovative gene therapy applications to treat tumours, cystic fibrosis and other respiratory, ocular and cardiovascular conditions, therapy strategies for genetic skin disorders, and population genetics of isolated red wood ants colonies in Lancashire.

As DNA technologies and ever more powerful computing capability makes it the fastest growing area of biology, genetics research is only going to become more influential. Several of the Covid vaccines currently in active use were developed using genetic technology, after all. Dr Fernández-Martínez’s team want to help you peel back more layers of the Genetics onion.

Welcome to the beginning of the next century of genetics.

July 6, 2022