Simon obtained his first degree in Biochemistry at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh before moving to the John Innes Centre in Norwich where he studied for his PhD under the supervision of Allan Downie looking at the role of calcium signalling during legume symbiosis.
Simon then went to work as a postdoc for four years in Pete Cullen's lab in the Department of Biochemistry at Bristol University where he investigated the GAP1 family of ras GTPase-activating proteins.
Having become interested in the application of imaging technologies to answer biological quesions Simon moved to the Babraham Institute in 2004 where he helped establish the core Imaging Facility.
Simon now manages the Facility which has over 100 registered users based within the Institute and an increasing number of commercial users based both on and off campus.
Gene duplication events can drive evolution by providing genetic material for new gene functions, and create opportunities for diverse developmental strategies to emerge between species. To study the contribution of duplicated genes to human early development, we examined the evolution and function of NANOGP1, a tandem duplicate of the transcription factor NANOG. We found that NANOGP1 and NANOG have overlapping but distinct expression profiles, with high NANOGP1 expression restricted to early epiblast cells and naïve-state pluripotent stem cells. Sequence analysis and epitope-tagging revealed that NANOGP1 is protein-coding with an intact homeobox domain. The duplication that created NANOGP1 occurred earlier in primate evolution than previously thought and has been retained only in great apes, whereas Old World monkeys have disabled the gene in different ways including homeodomain point mutations. NANOGP1 is a strong inducer of naïve pluripotency; however, unlike NANOG, it is not required to maintain the undifferentiated status of human naïve pluripotent cells. By retaining expression, sequence and partial functional conservation with its ancestral copy, NANOGP1 exemplifies how gene duplication and subfunctionalisation can contribute to transcription factor activity in human pluripotency and development.
Genome sequencing has revealed over 300 million genetic variations in human populations. Over 90% of variants are single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), the remainder include short deletions or insertions, and small numbers of structural variants. Hundreds of thousands of these variants have been associated with specific phenotypic traits and diseases through genome wide association studies which link significant differences in variant frequencies with specific phenotypes among large groups of individuals. Only 5% of disease-associated SNPs are located in gene coding sequences, with the potential to disrupt gene expression or alter of the function of encoded proteins. The remaining 95% of disease-associated SNPs are located in non-coding DNA sequences which make up 98% of the genome. The role of non-coding, disease-associated SNPs, many of which are located at considerable distances from any gene, was at first a mystery until the discovery that gene promoters regularly interact with distal regulatory elements to control gene expression. Disease-associated SNPs are enriched at the millions of gene regulatory elements that are dispersed throughout the non-coding sequences of the genome, suggesting they function as gene regulation variants. Assigning specific regulatory elements to the genes they control is not straightforward since they can be millions of base pairs apart. In this review we describe how understanding 3D genome organization can identify specific interactions between gene promoters and distal regulatory elements and how 3D genomics can link disease-associated SNPs to their target genes. Understanding which gene or genes contribute to a specific disease is the first step in designing rational therapeutic interventions.
Heterochromatin maintains genome integrity and function, and is organised into distinct nuclear domains. Some of these domains are proposed to form by phase separation through the accumulation of HP1ɑ. Mouse heterochromatin contains noncoding major satellite repeats (MSR), which are highly transcribed in mouse embryonic stem cells (ESCs). Here, we report that MSR transcripts can drive the formation of HP1ɑ droplets in vitro, and modulate heterochromatin into dynamic condensates in ESCs, contributing to the formation of large nuclear domains that are characteristic of pluripotent cells. Depleting MSR transcripts causes heterochromatin to transition into a more compact and static state. Unexpectedly, changing heterochromatin's biophysical properties has severe consequences for ESCs, including chromosome instability and mitotic defects. These findings uncover an essential role for MSR transcripts in modulating the organisation and properties of heterochromatin to preserve genome stability. They also provide insights into the processes that could regulate phase separation and the functional consequences of disrupting the properties of heterochromatin condensates.