Back to McLaughlin Lab

At PNRI, curiosity illuminates paths to discovery. Sometimes the route to a future medical breakthrough winds an unconventional trail.

PNRI’s McLaughlin Lab focuses on one of the areas of the human genome that we know the least about. The lab investigates how diseases develop from the movement of retroelements: nimble, virus-like DNA sequences that make up a major portion of the part of the human genome. Amazingly, this mysterious “noncoding genome” is much, much larger than the coding genome which contains the genes where we typically look for mutations that cause disease in humans. In other words, as much as 98% of the genetics all humans share had no known function and had been written off as “junk DNA.”

Also called “jumping genes,” retroelements in our noncoding or junk DNA move and reinsert themselves into new places in our chromosomes. This extraordinary ability gives these genes a unique potential to cause diseases, such as autoimmune disorders and certain forms of cancer. While retroelements evolve to thrive in our genome, our genes can also evolve elaborate systems to block the disruptions caused by their “jumping.”

The McLaughlin Lab works to expose these systems and their workings, also exposing new paths to understanding disease susceptibility and resistance, including how to expand and strengthen the immune system in those affected by autoimmunity and other genetic diseases.

There is still much to learn about the mysterious and plentiful noncoding parts of the genome. Dr. Rick McLaughlin and his team embrace a curiosity-driven approach, finding beauty in complexity, and expanding the possibilities for basic science to be applied to fascinating questions in human health.

“There’s so much cool biology out there,” says Dr. McLaughlin. “You have to find something that you’re motivated by, that really digs into your soul…that makes you want to build this team around you to figure out how to solve these both important and challenging problems.”