Molecular biologist Michael Smerdon has won a 10-year $3.58 million MERIT award from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) so that he can continue his research on repairing DNA. Smerdon was the only scientist to receive the award this year and is the 14th recipient since the NIEHS program began in 1966.

For more than 20 years, Smerdon has been doing groundbreaking work on how DNA damage, caused by chemicals and UV light, is repaired. He was among the first investigators to focus on the role that chromatin structure—the way DNA is folded and packaged within each cell—plays in the DNA repair process.

Every day 10,000 to 20,000 DNA lesions occur in each of a human’s 10 trillion cells. They are repaired by repair enzymes that travel up and down the double helix strands of DNA until they find a damaged area. The enzymes cut out the lesion and fill the gap with fresh DNA.

Each human cell has a strand of DNA almost two meters long. It is tightly coiled into bead-like nucleosomes and densely folded in order to fit inside the tiny nucleus of the cell. Repairs are complicated by this compact packaging, and Smerdon has shown that repair cannot proceed until the DNA is unfolded. His team works to understand how this packaging and the areas in the DNA where genes are expressed play a role in the repair processes.

“Understanding repair of DNA in specific regions of the packaged structure in the cell nucleus is crucial to understanding why certain DNA lesions are not repaired for long times in human cells,” said Smerdon. “Such ‘long-lived’ lesions can form mutations and ultimately lead to cancer.” His research has shown that repair of certain chromatin areas is absent in people with some of the repair-deficient diseases, like xeroderma pigmentosum, that are associated with increased cancer frequency.

Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT) Awards provide long-term grant support to researchers who demonstrate “superior skill and outstanding productivity during the course of their research careers.” Researchers do not apply for the awards but are selected by NIEHS. In 1978 Smerdon received a Young Environmental Scientist Award from NIEHS, and his research has been supported by the institute since that time.

A professor in the School of Molecular Biosciences, Smerdon joined the Washington State University faculty in 1980.