Gratien Prefontaine

Exploring beyond the human genome

September 17, 2008

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By Diane Luckow

Have you ever wondered why identical twins become less similar as they age?

Gratien Prefontaine (above) could tell you. As an assistant professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS), he is working on the latest frontier in a post-genetic era – epigenetics.

This new field studies everything outside of the human genome that influences how and when genes are expressed (turned on or off), including environmental factors and even diet.

In genetically identical twins, with each exposed to different environments or diets over time, differences in gene expression can explain why only one twin may develop schizophrenia or cancer, for example.

A Saskatchewan farm boy who originally wanted an agricultural degree so that he could learn to grow tomatoes that taste fresh year-round, Prefontaine instead fell in love with the university research lab. But he draws a lot of parallels between bench science and farming.

"You could design an experiment or plant a crop to the best of abilities but factors outside of your control can cause the experiment or crop to fail," he says. "It’s tough; it’s 80 percent disappointment and 20 percent success – and that’s the best-case scenario. There’s a lot of downtime until you get things right, but when you do, it’s very satisfying."

Prefontaine earned a PhD in biochemistry from the University of Ottawa before moving to the University of California, San Diego where he spent seven years as an assistant project scientist in cellular molecular medicine at the Rosenfeld Laboratory.

He joined FHS this year, attracted by the opportunity to return to Canada and by the faculty’s emphasis on global health. He looks forward to making great discoveries in epigenetics that could have far-reaching implications for human biology and disease, including cancer and aging.
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