Skip to main content

Vanderbilt discovery may shed light on evolutionary adaptations and human disease

Sep. 3, 2009, 1:59 PM

[Click here to see video of Billy Hudson.]

Researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center led by Billy Hudson, Elliot V. Newman Professor of Medicine, Pathology and Biochemistry and Director, Vanderbilt Center for Matrix Biology, have discovered a new chemical bond in biological tissue, a fundamental discovery that helps explain evolutionary adaptation in the animal kingdom and may shed light on human disease.

Hudson and his colleagues, who report their findings this week’s Science magazine, are already searching for the enzyme that makes the bond between a sulfur and nitrogen atom, and for diseases that may be caused by a defective bond.

“Every tissue in your body has this bond,” said Hudson, senior author of the paper and director of the Vanderbilt Center for Matrix Biology. “It is the ‘glue’ that helps hold together the building-block molecules of collagen networks that underlie cells and provide structural integrity to all tissues.”

He invited 12 high school students from rural Arkansas to come to Nashville over the summer to help advance the research by searching for the bond in tissues from different species throughout the animal kingdom.

The eight-week-long program, supported by $103,000 in federal stimulus funding, was part of Hudson’s Aspirnaut Initiative, established in 2007 with wife Julie Hudson, M.D., to stimulate students’ interest in science.

“I told the students that I hope it’s going to be like going from Earth to Mars,” he said. “That every rock you turn over will be a discovery.”

Hudson was one of those students nearly a half-century ago – a young person from a poor family in central Arkansas who was quitting school to work on a cotton farm. His plans took a drastic turn when a high school teacher helped him go to college and discover his love for science. Now he and his wife are returning that favor in a big way.

Davin Hayes, a 16-year-old from Omaha, Ark., had planned to burn brush for a farmer near his home over the summer but entered a research lab for the first time instead.

“Before I came to Vanderbilt I would just think of science as a cool hobby,” Hayes said. “I didn’t know that there was such thing as a career in science.”

Each student pursued an independent research project in addition to the group’s collective exploration. Hudson placed students in labs that reflected their outside interests, coupling their passions with their work.

By the end of the eight weeks, the students had found the bond in species that had never been studied before.

Hudson said he hopes to publish that data in a future paper with the students as
co-authors. But the greater success, he said, is that his program has helped inspire young people who had thought they could never be scientists.

The research published in Science magazine this week was supported by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases of the National Institutes of Health, the W.M. Keck Foundation and the Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology at Scripps.

For more information or to receive photos and/or video footage for this story please contact Vanderbilt Medical Center News and Public Affairs, (615) 322-4747.

Media Contact: Craig Boerner, (615) 322-4747

Recent Stories from VUMC News and Communications Publications

Vanderbilt Medicine
VUMC Voice