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.

BITTMAN RECEIVES EXPLORATORY GRANT TO STUDY BRAIN'S MASTER CLOCK

Neurobiologist Eric Bittman, biology, has received a two-year, $420,000 exploratory grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke to study how the master clock in the brain talks to other neurons and how it controls a variety of organs including the heart, lung and liver.

Circadian rhythms are internally generated cycles that repeat at 24-hour intervals in the normal, fluctuating environment but which persist with a slightly shorter or longer period in constant conditions, he explains. Many physiological events, including body temperature, sleep and wakefulness, heart rate and blood pressure show circadian rhythms. Other events that recur at longer intervals, including reproductive cycles, are based on the daily circadian clock.

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ZEBRAFISH GIVES PROFESSOR DOWNES CLUES INTO HUMAN DISEASE

Professor Downes rushes into his laboratory, his mind whirring with possibilities for research that could lead to cures for diseases. “Sometimes I forget to say, ‘Hi,’” says the professor of neurobiology. “I just say, ‘Here is what we need to do.’"

Downes obviously is a man on a mission - actually several missions. With the help of a 10-member lab team and thousands of zebrafish, an ideal animal for studying neurobiology, Downes investigates neurological diseases with an eye toward finding treatments. As a professor, he wants to do more than teach biology; he wants his students to be critical and strategic thinkers. He selects undergraduates and offers them meaningful research experiences that give them an advantage in applying to medical school, graduate school, or the workforce. It is also important to him to reach out to the community to give young people an image of a scientist unlike Einstein or Doc Brown from the Back to the Future movies.

At 45, he has made quick work toward his goals. In one breakthrough, his experiments found zebrafish models that can be used to develop new treatments for maple syrup urine disease (MSUD), a rare neurometabolic disorder that can be fatal. He is establishing new animal models to study epilepsy and a disorder that combines symptoms of autism and epilepsy. Last year, he and colleagues were awarded an $824,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study zebrafish to better understand how the brain stem controls movement. The research uses an integrated genetic, molecular, cellular, and behavioral approach to reveal how brain stem neurons integrate sensory information and control locomotion. Basic research into cellular and molecular mechanisms of brain circuitry is essential to deeper understanding of how brains work, leading to new therapies to treat neurological disease.

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