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Peter Uetz, Ph.D.

Peter Uetz, Ph.D.

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Associate professor of systems biology and bioinformatics, Center for the Study of Biological Complexity

Just one of the research areas of Peter Uetz, Ph.D., involves solving the mystery of proteins — some of which have no known function.

“For many of these proteins, we have no clue what they are doing,” he said. “It’s surprising because some of these proteins are basically present everywhere.”

Indeed, his lab studied one highly conserved protein that can be found in humans, plants, bacteria and fungi.

“You would assume this protein is important for something, otherwise it would not have been conserved in evolution for billions of years,” he said. “It turns out that the protein is only needed when the cells are starving. It’s basically a mechanism to save energy. There are many of these cases where proteins are only needed in special circumstances.”

In addition to his work with proteins, Uetz just submitted a grant for a five-year reptile genome sequencing project with Andrew J. Eckert, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Biology, whose specialty is trees. An odd match, one might think. To Uetz, it makes perfect sense.

“From an evolutionary genomics perspective, the question of how you find genes that allow an organism to adapt to certain environments is similar for any organism,” he said.

Uetz, who knew he wanted to be a biologist at age 12, is also the founder, editor and steward of the Reptile Database, a catalog of reptile species and classification.

He founded the Reptile Database as a graduate student in Germany while working on his thesis project, which focused on proteins involved in vertebrate limb development. The database has become a collaboration of hundreds of scientists and hobbyists around the world who study reptiles. Currently, it includes more than 9,900 species of reptiles, with another 2,800 subspecies. It will reach the 10,000-species mark in 2014.

“It’s kind of a big deal because reptile diversity will formally exceed bird diversity,” Uetz said.

Future projects include developing a method for mapping protein interactions, which could lead to discovering how pathogens, such as viruses, attach to their hosts. The many questions still to be answered and the research to be performed excite Uetz.

“This is an amazing time in history because we have gone from knowing little to knowing so much within a decade or two,” he said. “And there is so much diversity among both proteins and species. I won’t be bored any time soon.”

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