The laboratory of Danny Reinberg, PhD, is crawling with ants. But don’t call it an infestation. The six-legged insects, securely housed in hundreds of clear plastic bins, are crucial to Dr. Reinberg’s award-winning research into the molecular machinery that controls how genes express proteins, the building blocks of life. “Ants are a phenomenal model for exploring the molecular forces that influence gene expression and health,” says Dr. Reinberg, the Terry and Mel Karmazin Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Pharmacology at NYU Langone.
While ants within a colony all share the same DNA, their life spans can vary dramatically, depending on environmental cues. A queen ant can live up to 25 years, for instance, while a worker might die within 2 years. Dr. Reinberg is teasing apart the chemical signals responsible for such striking differences in longevity and behavior. After sequencing the genomes of two ant species, he and his colleagues have linked the hyperproduction of a pair of enzymes with aging. His team has also identified important “chemical clamps” that wrap around genes and cause heritable changes in the production of proteins, part of a phenomenon known as epigenetics. Such insights into the machinery that turns genes on and off lay the foundation for therapies that could one day silence disease-causing genes and proteins.
Dr. Reinberg’s efforts have been widely lauded. This year, the researcher joined the prestigious ranks of the National Academy of Sciences, among the highest honors bestowed on an investigator in recognition of distinguished achievements in original research. “Few scientists achieve his level of success,” says Dafna Bar-Sagi, PhD, senior vice president and vice dean for science, and chief scientific officer at NYU Langone.
Back in his laboratory, Dr. Reinberg is outnumbered by ants by about 10,000 to 1. But there are few places on earth he would rather be. “Every day in the lab is just fascinating,” he told the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which funds his work through its highly competitive Investigators Program. “It gives you something new.”