Molly McCue

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Inventors and Innovators

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Molly McCue

Dr. Molly McCue runs one of the biggest, if not the largest, equine genetics laboratories in the world. McCue is recognized as a global leader in equine genomics and computational biology, and her lab’s reputation as one of the best has attracted large research grants from industry, government, and academia.

“We started out in genomics, but we have since moved beyond that into big data,” McCue says. “We are now using metabolomics—the study of metabolites—to quantify metabolic differences in the horse, as well as other tools that are relatively new to human medicine. We are definitely some of the first people to be doing these things in the horse.”

McCue’s lab consists of eight graduate students, two postdoctoral students, and five undergraduate students, including computer scientists, computational biologists, geneticists, and veterinary scientists in comparative molecular biology, biosciences, and bioinformatics. All of them—including McCue—are experienced computer programmers.

As a kid growing up in Kansas, McCue loved to ride horses. She also knew at a young age that she wanted to be a veterinarian specializing in horses. But never did she anticipate spending 80 percent of her time writing grants and sitting in front of a computer. While health issues preclude her from riding today, she still owns two horses, ages 27 and 32.

Molly McCue with a horse

McCue graduated summa cum laude from Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 2000. She went on to do an internship in large animal medicine at the University of Georgia before returning to Kansas State in 2004 to pursue a master’s and complete a residency in equine internal medicine. Along the way, she taught herself commuter programming.

In 2007, McCue moved to Minnesota to pursue a doctorate and do postdoctoral work, taking a position at the College of Veterinary Medicine as an assistant professor in 2008. Around that time, a consortium of people, including Dr. Jim Micklelson, a professor in the Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences, was working on sequencing the first horse genome—something McCue would go on to do hundreds of times.

She spent the next nine years, seeing patients, teaching veterinary students, and building her lab. Last May, due to a combination of health issues and her rapidly expanding lab, McCue decided to focus almost entirely on research.

In addition to better understanding disease in the horse, McCue’s research focuses on how the horse can be leveraged as a biomedical model. To do that, her lab spends about one-third of its time building the tools it needs to conduct what’s called network biology (understanding a cell’s functional organization), which can be applied across species.

“We work on at least a dozen different diseases,” McCue says. “Our work in metabolic syndrome in the horse has identified at least six different genes that probably affect risk and which we are testing for mutation. Overall we have identified 180 regions of the genome associated with that disease.”

Molly McCue with a computer and horse

While these statistics are at times mind-boggling, McCue’s lab has been first in many discoveries, including identifying environmental toxins that contribute to disease risks and showing that the muscle disease “tying up” is highly heritable. Her PhD work was also first to identify a muscle glycogen synthase mutation, a finding that received a prestigious ranking in the Faculty 1000 of Medicine as a potential novel form of muscle disease to test for in humans.

As a premier equine researcher, McCue is also in charge of the Equine Genetic Diversity Consortium, which represents scientists from 40 institutions worldwide. They are now working to develop a database of the genetic variation that occurs in horses worldwide, similar to the human 1,000 and 10,000 genome projects.

“We have designed every generation of equine genotyping chips, which enables horse researchers to identify genetic disease mutations and complex genetic diseases,” she notes.

McCue is also one of the coleads for equine and the chair-elect across species for the National Research Support Project, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Genetics Resources Program, an honor that reflects her reputation in the animal genomics community.

After spending long days in her office at her computer pouring over statistics and grants, it’s no wonder McCue likes to leave the heady data and computer work behind on weekends and get out into nature to hike and mountain bike with her husband and two children. This summer, she’s looking forward to launching her crossover kayak on the St. Croix River.

“We had a canoe when the kids were small, but finally after wanting a kayak for almost my entire life, I got one last summer,” she adds. “I’m really excited.”