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Q&A with Doug Menke: Of lizard genetics & human biology

Olivia Randall

Three years ago, Doug Menke led a team that became the first in the world to create a gene-edited lizard. A professor of genetics in the Franklin College of Arts & Sciences and director of UGA’s Developmental Biology Alliance, Menke was recognized last spring with a UGA Creative Research Medal for the accomplishment.

In this interview, Menke discusses his award-winning work, how he fell into the work of genetics and what lizard genetics can teach us about human biology.

What made you want to pursue a career in genetics?

I’ve been very interested in biology for as long as I can remember. My family lived in Miami and then later in Texas, where there were all sorts of animals to catch, including anolis lizards. So a long-running interest of mine has been animal biology.

When I entered graduate school in the mid-1990s, I knew I wanted to study gene function in animals. At the time, if you wanted to make targeted gene mutations in a vertebrate, the only animal you could really do that in was mice. I decided to work with mice so I could make mutations to understand the biology of how vertebrate genes work. And that’s the model I’ve been using for decades. But the advent of CRISPR technology in 2013 opened up the possibility of doing gene editing in all sorts of different species.

What led you to decide to work with lizards?

If you look at where major research discoveries have occurred, they’ve happened in a variety of different species—from microbes to monkeys, and everything in between. Each group of animals has its own unique biology. If you only look in a few organisms, you’re really limiting the amount of biology you can explore and discover. For example, reptiles and mammals have many shared traits, but mammals don’t have scales. If you want to identify genes involved in building scales, you have to work with reptiles or other scaled animals.

So the big motivation for working with lizards is simply that this is a group that includes thousands of species in which no one has studied gene function. If you don’t look at these less-studied organisms, you are limiting the amount of interesting and important biology you can discover. That’s the big picture.

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Image: Doug Menke, professor of genetics (Photo by Chamberlain Smith)

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