Dr Rebecca Berrens has been awarded a prestigious Sir Henry Wellcome Fellowship to study the effect of transposable elements in early mammalian development.

Transposable elements are DNA sequences that can move around within the genome. First discovered in plants in the 1940’s, transposable elements have been found in almost every organism and are thought to have many roles including gene regulation and generating different cell types.

Due to their mobility, transposable elements can cause a range of illnesses from genetic diseases to cancer. While in most mature cells transposable elements are inactive, during the very first cell divisions in early embryonic development these mobile elements are found to be active.

This fellowship will allow me to both develop this new and exciting technology as well as apply it to understand the effect of transposable elements in early development.

Dr Rebecca Berrens, Marioni Group

With her new fellowship, Dr Rebecca Berrens is aiming to understand the role of transposable elements in cellular differentiation. Over the next four years, Dr Berrens will combine computational and laboratory research to read long sections of RNA in single cells.

The development of this technique will allow her to investigate whether transposable elements are active in all or only a subpopulation of cells during early mammalian development.

Dr Berrens said “This fellowship will allow me to both develop this new and exciting technology as well as apply it to understand the effect of transposable elements in early development. By providing long-term funding and support, I can undertake this large and ambitious project as well as start to plan my next steps towards becoming an independent researcher.

“Transposable elements are usually inactive in mature cells, however, they are found to be active in early development and cancer cells. We also know that there is a lot of diversity between different cells in the same cancer sample. By creating a technique to look at transposable elements at the single cell level, it could one day be applied to cancer samples to understand the role transposable elements are playing within the tumour.

“Undertaking this fellowship within the Marioni Group was a natural choice. The team are experts in computational genomics and offer great support and training for junior scientists. I’m very grateful for receiving this fellowship and I’m excited to start working on it in February.”

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Marioni Group
Investigating mobile elements in the mammalian genome