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March 7, 2014

Cracking the epigenetic code

picture of Aki Minoda

Aki Minoda, Unit Leader

Epigenome Technology Exploration Unit , RIKEN Center for Life Science Technologies

What made you decide to become a scientist?

When I was young, I suffered from asthma. As a result, I always wanted to have a job where I could help other children who were suffering from diseases but never wanted to become a doctor. Then in high school, I read a book about the Ebola virus, which captivated me and drew me toward becoming a researcher.

Please describe your current research at RIKEN.

Our bodies are made up of several hundreds of different types of cells, for example hair cells and heart cells, but they all contain exactly the same DNA—the genome. How is this possible? It is achieved by a process called epigenetics—‘epi-’ meaning ‘besides’ or ‘above’ in Latin.

Each cell type knows which sections of the genome to utilize owing to a complex epigenetic marking system on and around the DNA. I am trying to crack this code—the ‘epigenetic code’. Many diseases and cancers have an incorrectly written code; I hope to detect the incorrectly marked regions in order to develop biomarkers and therapeutic drugs.

How did you become interested in epigenetics?

During my PhD research, I studied yeast, a very simple single-celled organism and a huge contrast to the estimated 30 trillion cells that make up the bodies of humans. Nevertheless, even such simple organisms save energy by using an epigenetic code to read only the necessary parts of the genome. I found this very interesting and wanted to know more about how this is achieved.

What is the best thing about working at RIKEN?

Picture of Aki Minoda at her lab

The best thing about working at RIKEN is how international the organization is. My division in particular—the Division of Genomic Technologies—is one of the most international divisions at RIKEN and I am extremely proud to be a part of it. Having lived abroad for a long time, I feel very comfortable here.

Please tell us about your professional and personal goals.

I strive to continue to enjoy my research with as much passion as I have now, and for my work to have a meaningful impact on society and the individuals who are affected by various diseases. Furthermore, as a female researcher in Japan, I would like to be a role model for young female scientists, especially given that the ratio of female to male scientists in Japan is a lot lower than in the West.

How do you balance family life with your work at RIKEN?

My husband is American, and we moved together to Japan for my position at RIKEN. Consequently, he had to leave his job in the United States, which was a big decision for us to make. Fortunately, he is very understanding.

In general, I try to not work late during the week and to minimize working on the weekends. I would like others to know that it is possible to have a successful career as a female scientist and to also spend time with family on the weekends.