Xinshu (Grace) Xiao, UCLA professor of integrative biology and physiology in the UCLA College, is among 33 outstanding scientists nationwide to be awarded a grant today from the National Human Genome Research Institute to expand the ENCyclopedia Of DNA Elements (ENCODE), a fundamental genomics resource used by many scientists to study human health and disease.

The ENCODE project strives to catalog all the genes and regulatory elements — the parts of the genome that control whether genes are active or not — in humans and model organisms.

Xiao is a member of UCLA’s Institute for Quantitative and Computational Biosciences, Molecular Biology Institute and the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, as well as UCLA’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science’s bioengineering department. She and her research group study how the unexpectedly small number of genes in our cells leads to an extraordinary spectrum of phenotypic diversity. Her research team focuses on RNA processing and regulation, which have proved pivotal to human health and disease. They use a combination of cutting-edge computational analysis approaches in genomics, bioinformatics, and molecular and systems biology. Her research group will analyze vast amount of human ENCODE data.

The research institute has a long-standing commitment to develop freely available genomics resources for the scientific community. All of the data generated by the project will be deposited into ENCODE public databases. The institute is part of the National Institutes of Health.

“ENCODE has created a high-quality and easily accessible set of data, tools and analyses that are being used extensively in studies to interpret genome sequences and to understand the consequence of genomic variation,” said Elise Feingold, a program director in the division of genome sciences at the institute. “These new awards provide the opportunity to strengthen this foundation by expanding the breadth and depth of the resource.”

Since launching in 2003, ENCODE has funded a network of researchers to develop and apply methods for mapping candidate functional elements of the genome, and to analyze its enormous database of genomic information. Pending the availability of funds, the institute plans to commit $31.5 million in the current fiscal year for these awards.

ENCODE’s catalog of genomic information can be used in a variety of research projects from generating hypotheses about what goes wrong in specific diseases to understanding the processes that determine how the same genome sequence is used in different parts of the body to make cells with specialized functions, for example.

Xiao’s research team in 2015 created an accurate new method to identify genetic markers for many diseases — a significant step toward a new era of personalized medicine, tailored to each person’s DNA and RNA. The powerful method, called GIREMI, is helping scientists to inexpensively identify RNA editing sites, genetic mutations and single nucleotide polymorphisms — tiny variations in a genetic sequence — and can be used to identify risk markers for a wide range of diseases from cancers to schizophrenia.

Xiao is making the software available on her website as a free download, enabling scientists worldwide to use this potent method in their own research on diseases. GIREMI was researched and designed during the past two years by Xiao and Qing Zhang, a postdoctoral scholar in her laboratory.