NEWS | October 2, 2018

Young UC Davis scientist receives major NIH grant for genetics research


Megan Dennis of the UC Davis MIND Institute and Genome Center is the recipient of the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award to study genes unique to humans that may contribute to neurodevelopmental disorders including autism.

Megan Dennis

Dennis, an assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Medicine, will receive $2.3 million over five years for the multidisciplinary collaborative project entitled “The function of duplicated genes in human brain evolution and disease.”

The grant is part of the 2018 High-Risk, High-Reward Research program from the National Institutes of Health, a $280 million commitment to highly innovative research. Dennis was one of 58 researchers to receive a New Innovator award, which supports “unusually innovative research from early career investigators.”

“This program supports exceptionally innovative researchers who have the potential to transform the biomedical field,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins. “I am confident this new cohort will revolutionize our approaches to biomedical research through their groundbreaking work.” 

Dennis said the team will use a diverse set of tools including genome sequencing, genetics, cell biology and animal models including mice and zebrafish.

“We humans are unique in our cognitive abilities and skills,” Dennis said. “The main goal of this grant is to delve into oft-overlooked parts of the genome to identify genes that may contribute to brain features unique to humans not found in other primates. Mutations in these same genes are top candidates for contributing to neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism, intellectual disability, epilepsy and schizophrenia. ”

Other UC Davis researchers on the project include Li-En Jao and Sergi Simo of the Department of Cell Biology and Human Anatomy, Pamela Lein of the Department of Molecular Biosciences at the School of Veterinary Medicine, and Katherine Rauen of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. Also contributing to the research is Aida Andres of the Genetics Institute at the University College London.

The grant is supported though NIH No. DP2 MH119424.