A winner in the lab, a winner in the pool

When grad student Ayelet Peres isn’t working on her research in Dr. Gur Yaari’s lab, where she recently developed a computation tool to analyze antibodies genetic sequences, she serves as goalie for Israel’s women water polo team.

A breakthrough in antibody research has recently been achieved in Prof. Gur Yaari’s lab. The lab team used antibodies genetic sequences to re-map the area of the chromosome in which these antibodies were coded. “The genetic matter coded into antibodies is found in two chromosomes, and using our uniquely developed method we were able to separate to differentiate the genetic data derived from each of them,” says Ayelet Peres, one of the scientists leading the research.

“This means we now have a simple, free computational tool, making it much easier to read the genetic data in both chromosomes, whereas other methods are much more costly and complex. The tool we’ve developed is usable in research and industry and enables not just reengineering genetic code from antibodies back to chromosomes, but also to examine which genes are more active and which alleles (gene variations) exist in each of the chromosomes.”

One interesting capability of this tool, developed by Peres and her colleagues Moria Gidoni and Pazit Pollack, as well, of course, and Prof. Yaari, is the ability to detect gene deletions in each of the chromosomes. “Often, gene deletions occur due to various autoimmune diseases like Celiac,” explains Peres. “If in the future, we will be able to use this tool to detect predispositions to autoimmune conditions directly related to chromosomal changes, we will be able to produce a synthetic antibody to enable the patient’s body to better cope with their condition. Today, this research discipline is only in its early stages, and we would like to have as many labs and scientists use this tool. The more it is used, the faster we can detect the influence of these gene deletions and understand the genetic data embedded in our antibody-producing chromosomes.

Peres, 27, holds a BSc in Biology from Tel Aviv University and is currently completing the 3rd year of her MSc in Bioengineering at the Faculty of Engineering at Bar-Ilan University. “The faculty is a great, familial place, and I was very well accepted here. Studying here is a fun, memorable experience,” she says. “I also like it that the faculty and lecturers genuinely care about bringing more women here, and keeping them here. The faculty is putting a lot of effort into that – offering a scholarship for women, collaborating with companies like Intel and Microsoft to promote projects advancing women in science, such as SheCode. And we see the results here every day. Women make up a substantial percentage of the grad students at the faculty, and that sets a goal for the female undergrads.”

When Peres speaks about female presence in a male-dominated field- she knows what she is talking about. For over twenty years she has been serving as a water polo goalie, and last year, for the first time in Israel’s history, she, along with the national female water polo team, placed in the European team championship. “I started playing water polo at 7 years old, at the Tel Aviv University pool, and until I was 16 I played in boys teams – because there wasn’t a girls’ team,” she says. “Gladly, today the club I grew up in has over 100 women players. The national women team is reaching new highs in the European league, and we hope to someday play in the Olympic Games.”

Until the Olympics, Peres focuses on her graduate studies and plans to pursue a Ph.D. in Immunology. The article she wrote together with Gidoni and Pollack about the chromosome mapping tool was recently published in Nature Communications magazine. A second article will soon be published in Bioinformatics magazine. “I am privileged to be working in Dr. Yaari’s lab,” says Peres. “It’s a great lab with amazing people, and I learn a lot from them every single day.”