A Comprehensive View of Genetics through Computational Methods with Dr. Barbazuk

By Patrick Sherry

William Brad Barbazuk, Professor and Department Chair of the Department of Biology in the Liberal Arts and Science studies genome informatics – using computers and computational approaches to understand and discover the biology of genomes. Combining method- and question-based research approaches, he hopes to further the University of Florida Genetics Institute’s (UFGI) mission of moving science forward and creating an interdisciplinary impact on others.

As an undergraduate in Canada, Dr. Barbazuk remembers being unfocused and unsure of what to pursue. However, after realizing areas like engineering were likely not his strong suit, he took an interest more in biology and chemistry – finding talent in both. This led him to pursue biochemistry, which allowed him to take a genetics class, which he found great interest in. This class helped begin his journey towards creating a greater understanding of biology and genetics. From there, he was able to complete his Ph.D., work in the biotech private sector, and then receive a position at the University of Florida.

“It was interesting because it kept me grounded in chemistry, but it gave me a lot of introductions to various aspects of life science, and then I realized it gave me an opportunity to experience classes in genetics and it became a big interest of mine,” said Barbazuk. “As a pure and applied chemist, I would have never taken a genetics class.”

Before he arrived at UF, the field of genetics was experiencing several breakthroughs and innovations such as the sequencing of the genome of C. elegans and the creation of the Human Genome Project. Dr. Barbazuk had the pleasure of completing his academic degrees during this time, which led to involvement in these types of pursuits. This began his method-based research that focused on genomes and using genome informatics to facilitate understanding of large qualities of data. As technology has advanced, computational approaches to genetic research have become widespread providing the opportunity for researchers like him to use a computational underpinning to gain a better grasp on various genomes.

“If you want to understand completely how an organism is built and how it works, what you’d ultimately like is knowledge of all the intermediate parts,” said Barbazuk. “What genome informatics does is it tells you how those parts organize and talk to each other. Then you go to a schematic – the schematic is how you understand how one piece influences another piece, the production of a whole organism, and how the organism responds or behaves under various stimuli.”

This type of research of his is broad enough to address how genomes evolve, how genes are structured, and how they are processed to express phenotypes. Overall, this part of his research provides meaningful ways to approach questions about genomes. Without a clear understanding of the biology and mechanisms of genomes, specific question-based research pursuits would be impossible to pursue.

Other than this method-based research, Dr. Barbazuk is involved in several question-based research projects such as post-transcription modification and genome duplication. His most pervasive question-based project is examining how alternative splicing evolved in plants. Alternative splicing is the process by which after a gene is expressed and a pre-mRNA is made, the pre-mRNA can be modified to create different RNA isoforms. The creation of different isoforms can lead to the output of proteins. Through examination of how these processes differ between biological kingdoms, Dr. Barbazuk’s research can lead to answers to broader, more complex questions.

This also allows him to be involved in and collaborate with multiple different disciplines. Barbazuk sees collaboration as an important, essential part of research, but an opportunity to learn more and evolve his research with it as well. Moreover, with his research heavily involving computational methods, advances in technology are improving and redirecting how the field inquiries about data. Collaboration and improved methods for gathering data overall provide greater potential for discoveries that can drive the field forward.

“As technology changes, our ability to do things changes, and our ability to do things that we maybe didn’t realize we could do before or didn’t have the power to do before suddenly becomes accessible,” said Barbazuk. “My research will change in many ways. The ability to do certain things that were considered maybe too difficult or not even really possible is changing and allowing us to get into more interesting avenues that five years ago were not available.”

Besides his research, Dr. Barbazuk was selected as chair for the 2023 UFGI symposium. Through this role and committee effort, Dr. Barbazuk hopes to facilitate interaction and learning from passionate experts. In addition, working with students also provides similar opportunities. In working with others, he hopes to create an environment where curiosity and excitement exist in the work of science.

Overall, Dr. Barbazuk’s blend of question- and method-based research provides the chance for others to experience science in all its wonderful capacities like he does. In creating these experiences, he propels the field forward letting science discover everything and anything the world can offer.

“I’ve been thankful and lucky to have a relatively long and well-funded research program, I have an awful lot of collaborators that have provided opportunities that I would not necessarily have otherwise,” said Barbazuk. “I’m happy with how things have gone and panned out in terms of funding. I’ve met a lot of very interesting people who have shared their interest in science with me so that I could appreciate what they’re doing and, in some cases, even get involved.”