Lab-ulous: Biology Labs Come Alive with Research
Two weeks ago, The Argus investigated the experiments of the Physics Department. This week, it’s the Biology Department’s turn. With 15 professors conducting biology-related research on campus this year, studies in this lively department cover everything from the chromosomes in gamete cells to how caterpillars eating plants can influence entire ecosystems.
We’ll start our investigation of the Biology Department with Chair Frederick Cohan. Cohan’s research deals mainly with bacteria speciation, and the ecological changes that occur to cause the splitting of the species. But can’t we just look this up in a taxonomy book? How complicated can bacteria be?
Turns out, pretty complicated.
“Bacteria are genomically huge and are large in diversity, so if you want to study the dynamics, you have to figure it out on your own: you have to do your own taxonomy,” Cohan said.
Cohan and his team focus on Bacillus, a particular type of bacteria found in Death Valley National Park. Over the past 25 years, they’ve studied the DNA sequences of the Bacillus bacteria and have tried to determine what the most divergent populations—those that differ most from the others—are.
On a scale not dissimilar from bacteria, but on a completely different topic, Professor Stephen Devoto’s current research focuses on how a particular cell becomes a muscle cell and how muscle cells then proliferate into muscle fibers. Devoto and his team focus mainly on genetically modified Zebra fish, which they study in their embryonic state.
“The Zebra fish is a spectacular organism to do [research] in because the fish eggs are all in the water, so we can watch cells move in the embryo,” Devoto said. “They’re very easy to keep—in large numbers we can find rare strains, mutations that disrupt muscle development.”
By identifying the process through which cells differentiate into muscle cells, Devoto’s research could lead to curative advancements in human diseases such as muscular dystrophy.
Associate Biology Professor Gloster Aaron, Lauren B. Dachs Professor of Science and Society Laura Grabel, and Professor of Biology Janice Naegele have also been focusing on disease treatment by working collaboratively in the study of neuron cells in order to gain insight into epilepsy treatments.
“We generate embryonic stem cell-derived neural progenitors and transplant them into mouse models of epilepsy,” Grabel explained. “Our hypothesis is that adding additional inhibitory neurons can suppress seizures.”
Aaron’s research is “big picture,” as he focuses on a certain section of the brain, as opposed to the complementary work of Grabel and Naegele, who focus more on individual cells.
“We study the propagation of seizures at the circuit level, measuring the propagation across the corpus callosum, which is the main structure that allows communication between the hemispheres of the brain,” Aaron said.
Grabel’s research is centered on how and through what mechanisms pluripotent cells, like embryonic stem cells, become specialized cells and specifically become neurons. Naegele’s research, on the other hand, studies the effect of natural and man-made GABAergic neuron cells in the prevention or reduction of seizures in the brain. These neuron cells are transplanted into the damaged brain cells that cause seizures.
Naegele stated that her proudest accomplishment in her research was the development of a long-term EEG machine.
“We’ve been able to study epileptic seizures in a long period of the same mouse, recording 24 hours a day, seven days a week, several times a month. It allows us to study the mice in ways that most other labs can’t,” Naegele said.
Although Naegele and her team have only experimented on mice thus far, her research has the potential to be extended to human therapy.
Some research is being conducted on a scale much larger than cells and mice. Associate Professor Michael Singer’s current research explores the relationship between caterpillars and the plants they consume and how this relationship affects the biodiversity of the environment surrounding it.
“At a theoretical level my lab investigates the interplay between evolution and ecology through the study of species interactions,” Singer said. “The interactions we study involve species at three trophic levels: plants, herbivores, and carnivores. A major conceptual theme is how the study of species interactions across these three trophic levels explains ecological and evolutionary theory better than the traditional study of pairwise species interactions.”
Back at the level of molecules and single organisms, Professor Ann Burke, an evolutionary morphologist, studies the embryonic patterns of vertebrates, focusing on how their muscular skeletal form changes over time.
“Our methods are comparative experimental embryology—observing development in a lot of different types of embryos, so it’s very visual,” Burke said. “We have different ways of labeling cells with stains and fluorescent markers for gene expression or proteins.”
Burke and her team have successfully brought an evolutionary perspective to projects in molecular genetics, and she is most proud of her work in this field.
Professor of Biology and Chair of the Neuroscience and Behavior Program John Kirn focuses his research on how the brain obtains and stores information. Kirn and his team study songbirds that can engage in vocal learning. He believes that his research challenges accepted knowledge of neurological functioning.
“I think I contributed in my own small way to changes in how we think about the brain,” Kirn said. “It was once thought that normal adult brain function required a fixed set of neurons with very stable connections. Work on songbirds challenged this notion by showing that the avian brain continues to replace neurons throughout life.”
While his team has made significant contributions to the scientific community, changing notions of how the brain grows and develops through the years, Kirn’s research is not yet complete.
“While we still do not fully understand the functions of this neuronal replacement, studies clearly show that normal brain function can persist despite ongoing rewiring,” he said.
Biology Professor Michael Weir’s research revolves around the ribosome, a protein found in the cells of eukaryotic organisms and how it knows where to start protein synthesis. Weir’s lab studies budding yeast and has made significant progress.
“We’ve discovered evidence that suggests many yeast proteins are shorter than expected or might be translated in different reading frames,” Weir remarked.
Weir also mentioned that through his collaborative work with Professor Michael Rice, as well as the larger-scale work of others, they have confirmed a number of their initial predictions about ribosomal protein synthesis.
In this installation of Lab-ulous, we now turn to a familiar species in biological study; the Drosophila fruit fly. Assistant Professor Ruth Johnson studies the epithelial cells of the Drosophila pupe, focusing specifically on the Cindr protein, in order to study the signals between cells that change the fly’s cytoskeleton. Professor Johnson, who was unavailable for comment, notes on her research website: “Our studies focus on the adaptor protein Cindr and its binding partners. How this is done remains unclear. What is the nature of the Cindr-complexes? How are these regulated? How do these complexes exert context-specific regulation of cell behavior?”
From her research, Johnson hopes to achieve a greater understanding of the cell process during organogenesis and repair; through this, there is potential to prevent malignant cancer cells from spreading in the future.
Professor David Bodznick’s research is based in neuroethology, the evolutionary study of the nervous system’s effect on animal behavior.
“We try to understand neural circuits responsible for the naturalistic behaviors of animals, behaviors necessary for survival,” Bodznick said. “Specifically my students and I study how behaviorally-important sensory information is filtered and analyzed in the brain.”
The Bodznick team studies these neural circuits in the fish sensory systems, which are responsible for developing predictions about upcoming sensory inputs. They seek greater understanding about the functioning of human brains and many other vertebral animals.
“The same circuitry is present in the cerebellum in all vertebrates and is responsible for learning motor skills, predicting and eliminating movement errors,” Bodznick said.
With all this research going on through all the labs of Wesleyan, how does one get involved? The most common necessity the professors agreed on was having a strong, well-developed interest for the research topic.
“I’m looking for a team player; I like people who are smart and strongly motivated, too,” Naegele suggested. “I would say that it’s helpful to have taken a course with me, so I get to know the person.”
Despite tough competition and limited space availability in labs, Cohan had some advice for Wes undergrads:
“Anybody who is interested in research should definitely try to get involved in it,” he said. “I really feel that this is an area where Wesleyan really excels in that we make it possible for undergraduates to participate in research and to be working shoulder to shoulder with their professor mentors.”