Spotlight on MCB-funded Science


A spotlight illuminates the words 'Spotlight on MCB-funded Science.'

Photo Credit: Matusciac Alexandru/

Sharing MCB Science is one of our six blog themes where you can learn about exciting MCB-funded research submitted by our investigators (via this webform). We greatly appreciate the overwhelmingly positive response of the MCB scientific community and have received many more submissions than can be featured in long form on the blog. Enjoy this shorter spotlight of submissions we have received!

Ever wonder how a cell makes a tough decision? When food is scarce, Bacillus subtilis (a common soil bacteria) faces a difficult choice of when to shut down cellular processes and become dormant via sporulation (spore formation). Timing is key: wait too long and die from starvation; sporulate too early and die from crowding by rapidly dividing neighboring bacteria. What serves as the trigger – a specific biochemical signal or a more general physiological response – to enable starvation sensing and sporulation was unknown. As part of a collaborative project, Dr. Oleg Igoshin, an Associate Professor in the Department of Bioengineering at Rice University, Dr. Masaya Fujita, an Associate Professor in the Department of Biology and Biochemistry at the University of Houston, and their research teams applied computational and mathematical tools to this biological question. As described in this publication, they discovered the rate at which the cell grows may serve as a signal of starvation, triggering spore formation. This work could lessen food spoilage and control food-borne pathogens by offering new ways to inhibit sporulation in close relatives of B. subtilis that live on food.

This work is partially funded by the Systems and Synthetic Biology Cluster of the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences, Awards #MCB – 1244135 and #MCB – 1244423.

Diatoms (a unicellular photosynthetic microalgae) are an important part of food webs, especially in areas of the ocean with an abundance of fish frequented by the fishing industry. Because conditions and availability of environmental resources change, diatoms regulate physiological functions (such as the carbon-concentrating mechanisms (CCMs) and photorespiration previously described) at the level of gene expression. Instead of focusing on one environmental condition or type of diatom, Dr. Justin Ashworth (Post-doctoral Fellow),  Dr. Monica Orellana (Principal Scientist) and Dr. Nitin Baliga (Senior Vice President and Director) of the Institute for Systems Biology integrated all publicly available microarray data (displaying gene expression levels) from multiple conditions for the model diatoms Thalassiosira pseudonana and Phaeodactylum tricornutum to look for trends. As described in this publication and in the resulting integrative analysis available online at the Diatom Portal, the research team uncovered common patterns of gene expression and function. They also identified potential cis-regulatory DNA sequence motifs and distinct regions induced in response to changes in ocean pH levels and the availability of nitrate, silicic acid, and carbon. A greater understanding of this fundamental level of regulation enables scientists to better support diatoms in their role as biogeochemical nutrient recyclers.

This work is partially funded by the Cellular Dynamics and Function Cluster of the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences, Award #MCB – 1316206.

As we previously described on the MCB Blog, the laboratory of Dr. Alexander Mankin and Dr. Nora Vázquez-Laslop at the Center for Biomolecular Sciences, University of Illinois – Chicago, studies fundamental mechanisms in protein synthesis. Ribosomes inside the cell read three mRNA nucleotides at a time (a reading frame) during protein synthesis (translation). Sometimes, the ribosome slips one or two nucleotides on the mRNA to a different reading frame (frameshift). Recent work on the E. coli bacterial copper transporter gene (copA) by Drs. Mankin, Vázquez-Laslop, and their research team uncovered a slippery sequence in the mRNA that led to “programmed frameshifts.” Depending on whether or not the ribosome slipped, two different proteins were made – a previously unidentified copper chaperon protein or a copper transporter protein. Together, the copper chaperon and transporter proteins help protect the bacterial cell from internalizing too much copper. This work provides new insight into how bacteria change gene expression in different environmental conditions and offers training for student researchers such as lead author Sezen Meydan, who was highlighted in the ‘Meet the Author’ section of Molecular Cell.

This work is partially funded by the Genetic Mechanisms Cluster of the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences, Awards #MCB – 1244455 and #MCB – 1615851.

Principal Investigator Spotlight: Dr. Sandra Murray

Tell Us about Your Current Career Position and Your Research Focus.

I am currently a Professor in the Department of Cell Biology at the University of Pittsburgh where I am working to elucidate the molecular mechanisms that regulate gap junction plaque assembly, disassembly, and degradation.

What Are the Key Experiences and Decisions You Made That Have Helped You Reach Your Current Position?

My early opportunities to get involved in science fairs while still in grammar school opened the door to a number of opportunities which led me outside my immediate community and facilitated my meeting a diverse group of mentors, getting into summer programs, gaining employment while in College and eventually getting into my chosen field.

One of my high school science fair projects resulted in my being identified by a biology teacher to participate in a science program at the University of Chicago during the academic year. As part of that program, I spent the summer in the Department of Anatomy at the University of Illinois, School of Medicine. My job was to clean the medical school students’ histology slides by wiping them with an alcohol-soaked towel. The slides were covered with immersion oil that needed to be removed in preparation for use by the next class of medical students. I took this task very seriously. Innovative at an early age, I decided to dump all the slides in a large glass container filled with alcohol overnight to soak so that then the next morning I would only have to wipe the slides dry and return them to the correct slots in the boxes (all slides were labeled by box and slot number). When I arrived the next morning, the debris was gone from the slides but to my horror, almost all the labels had soaked off as well. I decided I would tell the head technician what had happened, but that it would be best to wait until I had repaired the damage before asking for help. After all, my mother had told half the neighborhood that her little daughter was working at the University. How the heck could I tell them I had been fired after only a week? Better to try to repair the problem, prolong the summer job, and then tell them, I decided. For the next weeks, I came in early to make the new labels and to try to match the unlabeled slides to the slides in the box that I had not dumped for soaking. I held the slides to the light and matched by color of the stain, size of the specimen, and perhaps a good guess. Finally however I asked a young research scientist to check if my identifications were correct. I expected him to hold the slide to the light and make the magical judgment call, “this is a slice of liver.” Instead, he immediately went to the large microscope sitting on a table in the corner. A world opened for me that day!!!! Who knew the power of that thing in the corner that I had ignored until now? Wow. I was hooked!!!  I used the microscope to reorganize my earlier guesses. I arrived earlier and stayed later than the head histologist, in order to re-label and restore the slides to the correct slots in a box. The chairman of the department took notice of my diligence (my frantic attempt to recover from my mistake and to restore the boxes) and he was amazed at the now sparkling slides (soaked, polished untill they glittered, and newly labeled). When the summer program ended, not only did I not get fired for my innovative mishap with the slides, but instead I was hired by that chairman to work in the Department of Anatomy during Christmas breaks and following summers.

I have continued throughout my career to use microscopes.  Now, I couple the visual observations made with microscopes to biochemical and molecular biological observations made with the new tools of science to answer questions.

Did Support from the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences Impact Your Research And/or Career? If So, Then How?

Support from the Division of Molecular and Cellular Bioscience has permitted my research team to demonstrate the increase in gap junction channels following treatment of cells with certain hormones, the inverse relationship between cell proliferation and gap junction channels, the molecules that move through the channels, the function of these molecules once they move through the gap junction channels and most recently the molecular machinery and processing needed for the removal of gap junction channels from the cell surface and subsequent degradation.The world of gap junctions and cell-cell communication has blossomed and funding from the NSF has allowed me to be part of the team that has planted, tilled and watched as the field continues to grow.

Beyond the scientific impact that NSF funding has allowed, my career has been greatly enhanced. Without funding from the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences, I would not have been able to  lead a research team or provide training and opportunities to others who have excelled in science.

How Did You First Become Interested in Science?

My science projects took me many places. I made hard water soft with one of my science entries and my mother took me to a water company where they could give me tips on making my contraption and my father helped me assemble my design from parts left over in our moving company (Murray Brothers Movers) garage. The project was a bust and did not win anything but it left me eager for the next science adventure. I tried to slow the growth of little creatures called Rotifers. My older sister took me to the University of Illinois and to the VA hospital to get agar plates for me to dabble into bacteriology and by the time I left grade school, my entire family and some members of the neighborhood has assisted me in my path toward discovery.

What Is it That Keeps You Working Hard and Engaged in Your Work?

I want to see more! I want to find out why? I really like what I do. I enjoy watching while the next generation of scientists discovers a world that only few get to see.

Were There Times When You Failed at Something You Felt Was Critical to Your Path? If So, Then How Did You Regroup and Get Back on Track?

Failure was a part of the game. I try to do my own personal best and to maintain my own internal standards. I understood early on that I did not have to be the best at everything, but that I had to focus on certain areas. I found that sometimes things were difficult and participating in those things was not comfortable, but if I took on the difficult task (one little step at a time) then I would grow. For example, I was a very shy person and it was truly a struggle to stand and speak to group. Public speaking is critical to being able to present data at scientific meetings and teach at the University. I shook each time I walked toward a podium. But each time I presented, it became a bit easier. Today, I look forward to the opportunity to speak and to bring my message to the audience. Failure and difficult times have taught me how to understand and treat other people, as well as how to just get up from a fall.

What Advice Would You Give to Others Who Want to Pursue a Career in Science That Is Similar to Yours?

Set clear goals; visualize where you want to go and what you want to do. Let your mind wander to tap into your own power, and manage your time so that you can climb your academic mountains and realize your dreams.

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MCB’s New Program Director: Manju Hingorani

MH_011315What were you doing before you came to the NSF?

I am a Professor of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at Wesleyan University, a liberal arts university in Connecticut whose claim to fame (in addition to Joss Whedon) is a small, vibrant PhD program (mainly) in the sciences. I have a research laboratory with two post-doctoral associates, three PhD and three undergraduate students who study the kinetic mechanisms of DNA replication and repair proteins. I also teach introductory molecular biology, upper-level biochemistry, and graduate level enzymology courses. Of course, I’m not teaching courses right now during my rotation at NSF.

What attracted you to work for NSF?

I think it was destined since my first year as an independent PI when I received that most exciting phone call about my proposal from MCB program director Patrick Dennis. I felt overwhelming gratitude to the NSF for trusting me as a scientist, and with that came the desire to give back. A few weeks after that call, I was asked to serve as a reviewer and that turned out to be a wonderful experience of course. I think that NSF’s policy of inviting members of the science community to manage grant funding on a rotating basis is just brilliant. The chance to experience finding and funding good science was too exciting to pass up.

Also, I am a big city girl from Bombay, India, and Washington DC is very alluring.

Plus, my pharmacologist spouse and I have engaged in the two-body…let’s not call it a “problem”, let’s call it the two-body “minuet” over decades across Ohio, Mississippi, Michigan, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and, most recently, Switzerland. He works in Maryland now, so the chance for me to work for NSF at the same time is almost too good to be true.

What was your first impression of NSF? Has this impression changed since you began serving as a rotator?

It’s surprising that coming to NSF has felt more like coming home than a new and unusual experience. Everyone has been welcoming and so good about sharing information in detail—before I even know what I need to know—my impression of the community has been very positive. The fundamental culture is dedicated to serving science and scientists, and everyone I meet is pulling toward this goal. This shared trait makes working with so many different personalities comfortable and fun.

Perhaps it helped that I arrived right after the CAREER proposals came in this summer. The workload is relatively less intense during this period, and starting off by reading the best ideas of young PIs was a rather uplifting experience.

What were the personal goals you most wanted to accomplish while at NSF?

I don’t have any particular personal goals to accomplish while at the NSF. I look forward to advancing science from this very different and much broader perspective than usual. And it would be nice to become a more effective advocate for basic research and science education after this experience.

What surprised you most about working at NSF?

How easy, albeit exhausting, it is to maintain a well-functioning laboratory back home while working at NSF. Between Skype and FaceTime and Google Hangouts and instant messaging and even a phone call now and then, my group members keep in touch with me more effectively than when I’m on campus. Happily, their independent thinking, writing and presentation skills are showing steady improvement.

What are some of the challenges of serving as a rotator?

Getting a handle on all the opportunities available to fund research scattered all over the building.

What would you tell someone who is thinking about serving as a program director at NSF?

If I were writing a Personal Ad on behalf of the NSF, it would be:

“Sixty four-something entity with a well-rounded appetite for adventures in science seeking persons deeply interested in research and education to help spend money well. George Clooney looks not necessary.”

When your friends/colleagues find out that you work at NSF, what do they say or ask?

I started at NSF a couple of months ago, so my colleagues recognize that I am only just finding my way around the organization, and haven’t asked too many specific questions about funding opportunities yet. I expect that will change soon. However, as a successful professor and woman in academia, I’ve been called to dispense advice since the beginning of my career, and I continue to do that. But now I think they think I’ve become more sage, pretty much instantaneously (I promise to use my new powers responsibly.)

Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers?

Yes. I urge everyone to take the KTtSOTA pledge.

(Keep Trying to Spell Out Those Acronyms)