Presented by Nathaniel Heintz
B.S., Sabanci University
Decoding 5hmC as an Active Chromatin Mark in the Brain and its Link to Rett Syndrome
As I stand here before you, I feel a real sense of pride in Pinar Ayata’s achievements. This young woman has so many facets to her personality, and such strong passions for nature and the world about us, that I at first thought that she would have difficulty finding the balance between science and society that we all must achieve if we are to survive in this field of endeavor. My concern was entirely unnecessary. Pinar has been blessed with the boundless energy and enthusiasm to embrace life each day as a new experience, a deep intelligence to guide her with clarity toward her scientific goals and an unfailing optimism that carries her through the storms of the scientific research experience. These qualities have allowed her to make startling discoveries in the field of epigenetics and Rett syndrome, while at the same time scouring the world for more remote mountains to climb, snow fields to traverse and rivers to kayak. Rockefeller has served Pinar very well: she has developed a talent for life and science that eludes many of us for decades.
In 2009, my laboratory discovered that mammalian genomes contain a sixth nucleotide, 5hmC, which is particularly abundant in the brain. This ignited a fire in epigenetics research that continues unabated today, leading to publication of over 250 original research articles in these few years. Yet as interesting as these many papers have been, it is Pinar’s discovery of the mechanism for decoding 5hmC in the nervous system that has shed the most light on this new process for genome regulation. Through a series of beautifully executed biochemical experiments, Pinar discovered and proved definitively that the protein that reads this new mark in the genome is encoded by the gene that is causative for Rett syndrome — a devastating autism spectrum disorder that afflicts young girls. I found this result shocking because the Rett syndrome protein had been discovered decades earlier, and two major laboratories had reported that it cannot bind 5hmC — so I bet Pinar that something must be amiss, that there has to be another protein interpreting this new genomic signal in the brain. With the exacting experimental skill that is typical of Pinar, she proved me wrong, publishing her results in a landmark Cell paper and winning a bottle of champagne (which I have yet to pay her).
As I hope you can appreciate from these comments, Pinar’s childhood in Istanbul, her early experiences sailing the Turkish coast with family and friends, her educational experiences at Sabanci University and her scientific internships in Heidelberg and Boston seem to have primed her for scientific and personal explorations that stretch the imagination. I have been fortunate to watch as these excursions into the unknown bore fruit, and I am confident that they will continue to do so during her postdoctoral studies in the laboratory of Anne Schaefer at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.