Robert D. Wells

Robert D. Wells

Professor Emeritus

Institute of Biosciences and Technology
2121 W. Holcombe Blvd
Houston, TX   77030-3303


The Founding Director of the Albert B. Alkek Institute of Biosciences and Technology in Houston (1990-1994). Concurrently, he served as the Head of the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. Previously, he was Chairman and Professor of the Department of Biochemistry in the Schools of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Alabama at Birmingham for a ten-year period. From 1966-1981, Dr. Wells was Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the Department of Biochemistry. Wells participated in solving the genetic code (1964-66); his postdoctoral mentor, Dr. H. Gobind Khorana received the Nobel Prize in 1968 for these discoveries. He served a one year sabbatical leave of absence on a Guggenheim fellowship at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and the University of California-San Diego in the mid 1970’s where he studied cancer viruses (polyoma). Dr. Wells holds an Adjunct Professorship in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center (1991-present).

Research Interests

Unusual DNA structures and human hereditary neurological diseases

Dr. Wells is interested in the role of DNA structure in triplet repeat diseases. Recent investigations since 1991 have revealed that approximately 15 human hereditary neurological diseases are caused by the non-Mendelian expansion of simple triplet repeat sequences (CTGoCAG, CGGoCCG, and GAAoTTC). Some of these diseases are myotonic dystrophy, Huntington's disease, and Friedreich's ataxia. The clinical observation termed "anticipation" refers to the earlier age of onset and increased severity of the disease through a human pedigree. This non- Mendelian behavior is correlated with an increase in length of the triplet repeat sequences and is caused by the non-Mendelian expansion process. This laboratory is investigating the molecular mechanisms of the genetic instabilities that give rise to the disease etiology in well-defined genetic systems such as Escherichia coli. In addition, studies are underway on the DNA synthetic enzymes (polymerases and topoisomerases) that carry out the expansion process. DNA structural investigations have revealed the presence of a new, unusual conformation (flexible and writhed DNA) which is an intrinsic property of the CTGoCAG and CGGoCCG repeat sequences.

This laboratory has pioneered the investigations on non-B DNA structures at certain simple repeat sequences since 1966. While we have worked diligently to determine the biological role of these conformations, it has only recently been possible to demonstrate that triplexes, cruciforms, left-handed DNA, tetraplexes, etc., serve as the demarcation points for large genomic translocations; in turn, these translocations (deletions, inversions), cause at least 40 human diseases. Thus, the combined efforts of human genomics, medicine, DNA biochemistry, and molecular biology have provided exciting insights into the role of mutagenesis in genetic diseases.

Representative Publications

Wells, R. D. and Warren, S.T., eds. (1998) Genetic Instabilities and Hereditary Neurological Diseases. Academic Press Inc.

Long CTG Tracks From the Myotonic Dystrophy Gene Induce Deletions and Rearrangements During Recombination at the ARPT Locus in CHO Cells. James M. Meservy, R. Geoffrey Sargent, Ravi R. Iyer, Fung Chan, Gregory J. McKenzie, Robert D. Wells, and John H. Wilson. Molec. and Cellular Biol. 23, 3152-3162 (2003).

DNA Double-Strand Breaks Induce Instability of CTG•CAG Repeats Related to Hereditary Neurological Diseases in an Orientation-Dependent Manner in Escherichia coli. Micheal L. Hebert and Robert D. Wells. J. Mol. Biol. 336, 655-672 (2004).

Breakpoints of Gross Deletions Coincide with Non-B DNA Conformations. Albino Bacolla, Adam Jaworski, Jacquelynn E. Larson, John P. Jakupciak, Nadia Chuzhanova, Shaun S. Abeysinghe, Catherine D. O’Connell, David N. Cooper, and Robert D. Wells. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 101, 14162-14167 (2004).

Non-B DNA Conformations, Genomic Rearrangements, and Genetic Diseases. Albino Bacolla and Robert D. Wells, Minireview. J. Biol. Chem. PIPS online on 08/23/04 (2004).

Transcription Influences the Types of Deletion and Expansion Products in an Orientation-Dependent Manner from GAC•GTC Repeats, a Triplet Repeat Associated with Skeletal Dysplasias. Liliana H. Mochmann and Robert D. Wells. Nucleic Acids Research 32, 4469-4479 (2004).

Hairpin Structure-Forming Propensity of the (CCTG•CAGG) Tetranucleotide Repeats Contributes to the Genetic Instability Associated with Myotonic Dystrophy Type 2. Ruhee Dere, Marek Napierala, Laura P.W. Ranum, and Robert D. Wells. J. Biol. Chem. 279, 41715-41726 (2004).