University of Utah geneticists have received a $7.5 million five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the structure and nature of human genes.

Genes control the transmission of hereditary characteristics by specifying the structure of a particular protein or by controlling the function of other genetic material. Everything a person inherits physiologically from his or her parents is chemically encoded in the genetic material known as DNA.Dr. Cecil O. Samuelson, university vice president for Health Sciences, said the work is extremely important for two reasons.

"First, from the basic science point of view, the transmission of hereditary traits is one of the secrets of life that we must investigate, and we simply need to know more about," he said. "Second, of course, there is the possibility that as we learn more about genetics, scientists may be able to tell us if we have a genetic predisposition to a particular disease, and, armed with that knowledge, there may be things we can do, such as altering our lifestyle, to influence that predisposition."

Samuelson said that because of Utahns' proclivity for keeping family histories and their willingness to participate in scientific studies, human genetics work is being done at the U. that cannot be done anywhere else.

"We have created at Utah that often talked-about critical intellectual mass in genetics that not only is gaining substantial financial support from many sources but is producing or participating in the best science being done," he said.

Principal investigator for the studies is Dr. Raymond L. White, co-chair of the School of Medicine's department of human genetics. Already, White and his colleagues have discovered what appears to be genetic predisposition in some people for a rare eye cancer that occurs in children and possibly, for colon cancer in adults.