Decoding function through comparative genomics: from animal evolution to human disease
Maxwell, Evan Kyle
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Deciphering the functionality encoded in the genome constitutes an essential first step to understanding the context through which mutations can cause human disease. In this dissertation, I present multiple studies based on the use or development of comparative genomics techniques to elucidate function (or lack of function) from the genomes of humans and other animal species. Collectively, these studies focus on two biological entities encoded in the human genome: genes related to human disease susceptibility and those that encode microRNAs - small RNAs that have important gene-regulatory roles in normal biological function and in human disease. Extending this work, I investigated the evolution of these biological entities within animals to shed light on how their underlying functions arose and how they can be modeled in non-human species. Additionally, I present a new tool that uses large-scale clinical genomic data to identify human mutations that may affect microRNA regulatory functions, thereby providing a method by which state-of-the-art genomic technologies can be fully utilized in the search for new disease mechanisms and potential drug targets. The scientific contributions made in this dissertation utilize current data sets generated using high-throughput sequencing technologies. For example, recent whole-genome sequencing studies of the most distant animal lineages have effectively restructured the animal tree of life as we understand it. The first two chapters utilize data from this new high-confidence animal phylogeny - in addition to data generated in the course of my work - to demonstrate that (1) certain classes of human disease have uncommonly large proportions of genes that evolved with the earliest animals and/or vertebrates, and (2) that canonical microRNA functionality - absent in at least two of the early branching animal lineages - likely evolved after the first animals. In the third chapter, I expand upon recent research in predicting microRNA target sites, describing a novel tool for predicting clinically significant microRNA target site variants and demonstrating its applicability to the analysis of clinical genomic data. Thus, the studies detailed in this dissertation represent significant advances in our understanding of the functions of disease genes and microRNAs from both an evolutionary and a clinical perspective.