Geneticist Craig Albertson to Study Shaping of Skull and Facial Skeleton

Evolutionary and developmental geneticist Craig Albertson, biology, has received a five-year, $1.76 million National Institutes of Health grant to study the development of the craniofacial skeleton, work he says will address a significant knowledge gap. Albertson explains, “While we know a lot about how the skull and facial skeleton form, we know comparatively very little about how the head is shaped over development.”

Albertson’s lab will first use a combination of micro-CT scanning, 3D reconstructions and genetic mapping in cichlid fish to generate hypotheses about the specific genes that control head shape variation. Cichlids are famous for their remarkable morphological diversity, including craniofacial diversity, and are therefore an excellent model for such studies, he says. Next, he and colleagues will test these genetic hypotheses by manipulating the genomes of zebrafish, what he calls “a powerful experimental model system,” to look for differences in skull shape.

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UMass Amherst Professor Hazen Aimes to Improve Pine Biomass Yield

Global demand for forest products such as pulp for paper, saw timber and wood pellets for fuel is expected to increase in coming years. To meet this need, UMass Amherst plant geneticist Sam Hazen, whose research has led to higher biomass yield in grasses, recently received a grant to demonstrate that his new technology can be translated to grow trees that produce more wood than conventional trees.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded Hazen a three-year, $713,000 grant to study gene regulation of cell wall growth in the model grass species Brachypodium. His experiments will advance understanding of the transcription networks that regulate secondary cell wall biosynthesis in grasses. Understanding the cell wall, which is a complex blend of polysaccharides, proteins and lignin, plus the processes and genes that regulate them, could have a big impact on commercial agriculture, he points out.

Hazen, an associate professor of biology at UMass Amherst, has partnered with a local biotechnology startup in Amherst, Genoverde Biosciences, Inc. to test the commercial viability of technology developed in his lab. He is also chief scientific officer for Genoverde. The company recently received a one-year, $225,000 grant from NSF’s Small Business Innovation Research program to evaluate the use of its “gene trait approach” to bioengineering loblolly pine for high wood density by modifying secondary cell wall gene regulation.

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Professor Bartlett Investigating Plant Stem Cells' Role in Yielding More and Bigger Fruit

Madelaine Bartlett, biology, and plant genome scientist colleagues elsewhere have received a four-year, $4 million grant from the National Science Foundation ($812,000 to Bartlett) to study the genes that regulate plant stem cell biology and the role they play in yielding more and bigger fruit. One goal is to experimentally speed up the mutation process, she says. “Instead of waiting for the next thousand years to see what new mutations arise in these genes, we will accelerate evolution in a very controlled and intelligent way to create genetic diversity for use by traditional plant breeders.”

The evolutionary biologist adds, “All the plants we eat have been domesticated, that is, selected by ancient farmers to be more convenient to grow and to yield more food. Because of all we know about how evolution works, we’ll use the same tools that nature does to create new genetic diversity.”

The research collaboration, which will focus on tomatoes, corn and the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana, is led by principal investigator David Jackson of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, N.Y. Others on the team are colleague Zachary Lippman at Cold Spring, Bartlett and Zachary Nimchuk of the University of North Carolina. In earlier studies by the Jackson lab published in Nature Genetics with Bartlett as a co-author, the researchers showed that weak alleles of a gene in the CLAVATA gene network can enhance fruit yield in corn. The researchers plan to build on that success.

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New Website for the UMass Amherst Natural History Collections

The UMass Amherst Natural History Collections showcase 300,000 specimens of mammals, birds, plants, fishes, reptiles and amphibians, with an especially strong representation of local flora and fauna. These resources play a major role in research activities and undergraduate education. A new Website provides a detailed information about the collections. View the Website https://bcrc.bio.umass.edu/nhc/

Distinguished Faculty Lecture: Duncan J. Irschick

Nature-inspired solutions are being discovered for some of the most intransigent problems that society faces, such as potential cures for cancer from animal and plants, novel antibiotics, and gecko-inspired adhesives. This “bioinspired” approach applies integrative methods from anatomy, animal function, evolution, and biomechanics to understand how animals evolve novel biomaterials and functions, and how these properties can inspire novel synthetic materials. This lecture will discuss how studies of the form and function of geckos has contributed to a broader understanding of bioinspiration.

The lecture will further focus on recent research using 3-D imaging techniques to digitally reconstruct living animals, ranging from lizards to sharks in full 3-D color and in high resolution. This new method of “Digital Life” provides the opportunity to understand biological diversity in a way never before possible.

Professor Irschick will be presented with the Chancellor’s Medal, the highest recognition bestowed to faculty by the campus, at the conclusion of the lecture.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016 in the Bernie Dallas Room, Goodell Building, 4 P.M. This lecture is free and open to the public. Reception follows the lecture.