John Petrini explains the study basic biological processes fundamental to all cells and DNA damage to first responders.
“In order to understand how a machine works, you take it apart,” says John Petrini, Chair of the Molecular Biology Program at the Sloan Kettering Institute (SKI).
We’re seated in his ninth-floor office, which is tastefully decorated with modern art — a Calder-esque mobile turning slowly above our heads. Outside the window, snow is falling, and the rest of the city seems quiet.
For more than 20 years, Dr. Petrini has focused his attention on one biological machine in particular, an assembly of three large proteins called the Mre11 complex, which cells use to sense and repair DNA damage.
DNA damage sounds bad, and indeed it can be — it’s one of the main causes of cancer. But thanks to the Mre11 complex, it’s usually caught quickly and mended without incident.
DNA damage can occur at any time, but it’s most likely to occur during DNA replication, which cells must do every time they divide. “DNA replication is inherently the time in a cell’s life when most spontaneous chromosome breakages are happening,” Dr. Petrini says.