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Founder of major field of DNA research

If DNA is like a set of encyclopedias, containing every bit of information necessary to create life, some researchers look at individual words, other researchers look at particular books, and a very few try to figure out the binding.

But 2006 Regents Professor Michael Smerdon of the School of Molecular Biosciences says that binding, better known as chromatin, is key to understanding the hot spots of DNA damage and the efficiency of DNA repair.

Given that a healthy human body suffers a billion-billions in new DNA lesions every day, understanding DNA repair is important not only for preventing or controlling cancer (Smerdon’s lab has conducted groundbreaking research into DNA damage by ultraviolet light), but for understanding viability itself.

Since the late 1970s, the Smerdon lab has been conducting pioneering research into correlations between chromatin structure, DNA damage and DNA repair, and he continues to be recognized as a leader in the DNA repair field today.

“He has basically, almost single-handedly, founded a major field of research,” said WSU colleague Ray Reeves. “He made headway where other people weren’t able to.”

“When I started this in 1976, I was an island in the field of DNA repair,” Smerdon said, and one of his satisfactions is that the field is growing, particularly in the last few years.

Still, he said, when he first began his research most molecular biologists were working on sequencing of DNA and figured that was plenty complex without trying to understand the intricacies of how two meters of DNA are packed about 100,000-fold to fit into a cell nucleus in such a way as to allow for replication, transcription and repair.

But that is what fascinated Smerdon.

“My training was from the side of physics and I was very interested in structure,” he said. And it has remained his interest, even while technology has greatly improved his ability to tease out the mind-boggling complexity.

“One thing I tell all my students is that perhaps the most important characteristic in science is perseverance, sticking with something when you know it’s right,” Smerdon said, and hesitated, “…when you think it’s right.”

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