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Biology was the first subject that actually got a 10 year old me fascinated when I first learnt the science behind heart attack. Having seen so many people suffer from such attacks given my family’s medical history led to me deciding to look for a cure. However, small and insignificant this episode may seem but it was enough to ignite in my mind the curiosity of the intricacies of human body. Little did I know that one class lecture would throw me into this enthralling and mystifying world of biological sciences. All through school with every class, I was only persuaded to delve deep into the subject.
This insatiable thirst for the subject propelled me to go for a Bachelors in Science in one of the biological subjects. The choice of course wasn’t difficult to make. Francis Crick was right when he said that it was the molecule that has the glamour, not the scientist. The study of molecules sustaining life had to be the key to get to the core of the subject and unravel biology in a different way altogether.
The undergraduate program was a new avenue where I got exposed to various fields of study. It was gratifying to finally be able to get at the core of the mere facts that we were presented with at the school. The two modules that garnered my engrossment were cell biology and molecular biology.
Through long, the double helical structure held together by specific pairing between the bases on two strands became one of the iconic images of science. However, it was only later in our molecular biology lectures that I realized that this molecule is a lot more sophisticated than it looks. Moreover, learning that the modest image of a typical cell with organelles is extravagantly dynamic had me overwhelmed.
Thus, complexity of mechanisms involved in cell biology and molecular biology presents a particularly compelling drama and one only gets filled with plenty of remaining mysteries.
The contribution of molecular biology and cell biology to the scientific revolution has been immense. From production of vast amount of rare drugs and vaccines, tracing evolution, creating instant test for a host of illness, to identification of criminals. Together these two fields have virtually encompassed the entire spectrum of science from physics and chemistry to biology and medicine. I feel, this field would allow me to study life on every level from individual molecules to the interrelated webs of earth’s organisms. Above all, I believe this is one of the most challenging and potentially rewarding fields.
Next comes the daunting task to get at a specific area from these two vast fields. The discipline that I felt would perfectly straddle these two areas is cancer and epigenetics.
Siddharta Mukherjee in his book ‘The Emperor of All Maladies’, described cancer as an infinitely resourceful adversary. This statement definitely struck a chord. Cancer is a global adversary no doubt but to describe it as resourceful is what was unique and made me realize the research potential of this globally occurring phenomenon.
Cancer is an amalgam of many diseases sharing a common feature of abnormal growth. Researchers all over the world thus have come up with different approaches to tackle it.
One such approach that seemed quintessential to my interest is epigenetics. Epigenetic mechanisms act to change the accessibility of chromatin to transcriptional regulation locally and globally via modifications of the DNA and by modification or rearrangement of nucleosomes. Global changes in the epigenetic landscape are a hallmark of cancer. DNA methylation usually takes place at the 5′ position of the cytosine ring within CpG dinucleotides, and its consequence is the silencing of genes and noncoding genomic regions.
Histone modification such as acetylation and methylation are important in transcriptional regulation. Normally, about 70-80% of all CG dinucleotides in the genome are methylated and the remainder CG dinucleotides occur in clusters known as CpG islands near the 5’ end of genes and are protected from methylation. So, Cpg island hypermethylation and genome wide hypomethylation are common epigenetic features of cancer cells. Too much methylation in CpG island can lead to activation of nearby oncogens and too little methylation across the genome can lead to silencing of tumor suppressor genes. Moreover, cancer cells also have a histone cancer signature caused by deacetylation of some lysine resuides.
Thus if given an opportunity I would want to work in this field to study and identify epigenetic markers on cancer cells. This is highly important since identification of specific epigenetic profiles of types and subtypes of cancer can be used as a diagnostic tool and identification of the stage of development of cancer in patients.
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