Charlebois combines love of music and research

Caleigh Charlebois combined her love of music and research while studying the diversity of repetitive DNA in mice at The Jackson Laboratory in the summer of 2019.

Charlebois, a third-year University of Maine zoology student with a minor in professional writing, examined the genomes of 59 mice. With a focus on diversity, she tested a new way to find DNA sequences that were both repetitive within mouse genomes and very different among the mice. Research like this can help us understand repetitive DNA, which has remained mysterious despite making up a significant proportion of the human genome.

Notably, her research found an example of a sequence that repeated more than 2,500 times in two mouse species and zero times in the others — a discovery of a highly repetitive and highly diverse sequence of 70 base pairs. Nucleotides are the molecules that combine to make up DNA, and they are represented by the letters A, C, T and G. The sequence of nucleotides Charlebois discovered was present in many places throughout the genomes of the mice that displayed them.

“Because we know that the mice differ in this way, we can study why the repetitive element is present so much in the two mouse species that have it, and also see if it is doing anything in the mice,” says Charlebois.

Charlebois named the sequence “Leitmotif,” a term used in music to mean a melody that recurs within a piece. The name was the perfect combination of her passions for music and research.

The sequence was then put into the National Center for Biotechnology Information Basic Local Alignment Search Tool (NCBI BLAST) database to check if the sequence appeared in any other organisms, and she learned that it appeared in a worm parasite of mice.

She says her mentor at The Jackson Laboratory, assistant professor Beth Dumont, is a supportive resource. They plan to include her findings in a future submission to a peer-reviewed publication.

“[This experience] taught me what it’s really like to be part of the scientific community because I was there with 29 other students who have similar research interests and academic caliber,” she says.

Charlebois found it refreshing to be able to discuss her interest in this work with others.

Along with 4,500 students from around the country, Charlebois presented her findings in November 2019 at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) in California. She says the experience was informative and provided an opportunity to network with peers.

Charlebois works as a teaching assistant for Sally Molloy, assistant professor of genomics at UMaine. She helps students performing wet lab research on bacteriophage (viruses that infect bacteria) and annotating genomes (noting where each gene starts and what function it has). This data is put into a national database, in which students from around the country are contributing to as well.

Charlebois loves seeing students have their first research experience — and helping provide other students with the same beneficial experience she had.

Author: Cat Caragine

Media Contact: Christel Peters, 207.581.3571