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Where stars begin. Marc Kassis (GRS'03) has stars in his eyes. More precisely, he is examining M17, a molecular cloud complex more than 7,000 light years from Earth, so massive and luminous that in 1764 Charles Messier, a French astronomer, was able to see it with the naked eye.

Kassis and CAS Assistant Astronomy Professor Lynne Deutsch, his advisor, are studying stellar objects within this cloud, two young stars-in-the-making called IRS5 and M17-UC1. They are analyzing the environment in which these young stars are growing and maturing, tracking down vital clues to the conditions and materials that constitute the building blocks of stars.

The researchers compiled data at the NASA InfraRed Telescope Facility, on the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii, measuring the infrared energy emitted from the dust and hydrocarbon molecules surrounding the stars. Their data revealed high concentrations of ionized gas moving out from a young, but more mature star (CEN1) nearby, and an area richer in hydrocarbon emissions in the cooler, denser region of the cloud closer to the emerging stars IRS5 and M17-UC1. These results seem to confirm the common belief that hydrocarbons play a key role in star formation.

This research earned Kassis the BU Provost's Award at last year's Science Day. Now part of a team under Deutsch's direction, which also includes CAS Research Associate Joseph Adams and Joseph Hora from the Harvard/Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Kassis is helping to design and build a new, more powerful instrument to focus on M17. The mid-infrared spectrometer and imager (MIRSI) will cover a larger area than any existing camera operating in the mid-infrared. It will not only make high-quality infrared images of areas of the universe thousands of light years from Earth, but will also be able to switch within minutes to spectroscopy mode, allowing scientists to do a full spectrum analysis of the area in view.

With it Kassis and his colleagues hope to learn more about the molecular clouds that provide the essential elements from which new stars, and possibly new life, emerge.

Finding the needle in the haystack. Now that the race to sequence the human genome has produced a virtual tie at the finish line, the challenge is to identify the useful information within the billions of sequences now stored in the huge public and private databases maintained by the National Center for Biotechnology Information and others. Investigators seeking to find a cure for conditions from breast cancer to early hair loss need to winnow out the precise information that will lead to a better understanding of the cellular mechanisms that produce disease.

Doctoral candidate Vincent Funari (GRS'01) and bioinformatics graduate student Dmitriy Leyfer (GRS'05), working with CAS Biology Professor Dean Tolan, developed a novel software program to mine these databases for the genetic information of interest. Unlike typical programs, which scan the huge numbers of Expressed Sequence Tag data (ESTs) with general genetic criteria, Tolan's algorithm takes a biological approach. The algorithm is based on the idea of gene-specific probing, incorporating information specific to the gene of interest and identifying only those ESTs relevant to the study at hand. It can be paired with existing or new programs to organize the data. The algorithm has been incorporated into two programs, the Virtual Northern Blot, which mines the database for information about gene expression, and the Virtual Cloning Tool, which uses the algorithm to mine for gene sequence information and construct novel, full-length gene sequences. These tools and algorithms significantly reduce the time and cost involved in identifying useful genetics and expression information. They are currently being re-engineered for the high-end demands of commercial use by Leyfer, engineering graduate student Peter Haverty (ENG'03), and ENG Professor Robert Berwick.

Funari and Tolan are employing the system to better understand how the body metabolizes fructose. This is important, Funari says, because more and more processed foods incorporate high-fructose corn syrup, posing a potential hazard for people unable to metabolize this fruit sugar.

Funari earned the CAS Dean's Award at Science Day 2000 for his presentation in poster form of his profiling tool and research results. It also led to a provisional patent on the bioinformatics tool, and negotiations are now under way for the commercialization of this technique.

Science Day 2001 will be held this year on Tuesday, March 27, from noon to 5 p.m., in the George Sherman Union. The event is an opportunity to learn about research by Boston University's graduate students in all areas of science, medicine, and engineering.

"Research Briefs" is written by Joan Schwartz in the Office of the Provost. To read more about BU research, visit


15 May 2003
Boston University
Office of University Relations