John Bracht is a new assistant professor in the Department of Biology.
PhD biology, University of California, San Diego
BS biology, New Mexico Tech
Areas of Research
Genomics, cell biology, microbiology, epigenetics
What initially sparked your interest in biology?
“I spent my teenage years in the mountains of Northern New Mexico (at over 8,000 feet elevation), and many hours in the summer wading in local ponds outdoors catching frogs and salamanders. At some point I became obsessed with cataloging the different species of protozoa (single-celled organisms) from local ponds and streams. I was intrigued by the way living things are able to strive towards their goals, and wondered (and still wonder!) about the molecular basis for this phenomenon.”
What honed your interest to your specific areas of research?
“As a postdoc, I worked on some of those same protozoa I’d examined as a teenager in New Mexico, and I discovered that they chemically modify their DNA. These DNA modifications, occurring on the DNA molecule, but not altering its sequence, are known as epigenetic modifications. In humans and plants, epigenetic modifications alter gene activity, but the pond-water organisms I study use the same epigenetic marks for a totally different process. Not only does this expand what we know of epigenetic modifications, but also it gives us a new way to search for drugs that might alter these epigenetic processes. This is important because epigenetic mistakes have been increasingly recognized as central to many cancers, so learning more about how epigenetics works, and how to fix the errors that occur, has great potential for chemotherapy or cancer prevention.”
What brought you to AU?
“It was clear the moment I first began investigating AU that this is a place where really exciting research is happening, and that the Biology Department has a very wide range of research projects underway. I found a fantastic, collaborative, fun research environment, and I wanted to be a part of that. I found that my research interests echo and strengthen what others are doing, and vice versa. And the AU students are highly engaged with the learning process—the teaching environment is excellent.”
What are you hoping to accomplish at AU?
“My postdoctoral work, uncovering the epigenetic modifications of DNA in protozoa, answered one question but also revealed several new puzzles. For example, the protozoa I study don’t have the standard gene set that makes epigenetic modifications on DNA, so something fundamentally different, and unknown, must be involved. While at AU I’d like to find the answer to that mystery. I also want to work on cancer drug discovery using single-celled organisms. And I also want to spend significant time teaching and mentoring, training the next generation of thinkers who are destined to be future leaders. This is yet another reason why working in Washington, DC, and AU in particular, is exciting.”