Cox Fernandes and Colleagues Discover Two New Species of Electric Fish

Biology faculty member Cristina Cox Fernandes helped discover two new species of electric fish (genus Brachyhypopomus). The new species live under "floating meadows," rafts of unrooted grasses and water hyacinth along the margins of the Amazon River. Dr. Cox Fernandes, with colleagues by John Sullivan of Cornell University and Jansen Zuanon of the National Amazonian Research Institute, described the discovery in the open access journal ZooKeys.

The new species are related to South America's famous electric "eel" (not a true eel), which can produce strong electric discharges of hundreds of volts. In contrast, the newly discovered fishes produce pulses of only a few hundred millivolts from an organ that extends into a filamentous tail. Nearby objects in the water distort the resulting electric field, and the distortions are sensed by receptor cells on the fishes' skin. Thus, the fishes use "electrolocation" to navigate through their complex aquatic environment at night. Their short electric pulses, too weak to be sensed by human touch, are also used to communicate with other members of the species.

Dr. Cox Fernandes and her colleagues found that the new species Brachyhypopomus bennetti produces a highly unusual "monophasic" electrical discharge. The only other electric fish in the Amazon with a monophasic discharge is the fearsome electric eel. In their paper, the authors suggest a possible benefit of B. bennetti's distinctive discharge. Unlike the discharges of most other electric fish species, a B. bennetti discharge is largely unaffected if the fish's tail is partially bitten off by a predator (a common type of injury in electric fishes). The researchers suggest that B. bennetti's preference for floating meadow habitat near river channels may put them at particularly high risk of predation and 'tail grazing' by other fishes.

The paper can be accessed here.

Peg Riley Receives University Outreach Teaching Award

Professor Peg Riley was recently awarded by the Provost the University Distinguished Outreach Teaching Award in recognition of her work with the Mass Academy of Sciences. Professor Riley is the founder of the Mass Academy of Sciences and has developed science outreach programs to "promote understanding and appreciation of the sciences". Locally Professor Riley and her team have developed science demonstrations for K-12 students and provided them to over 25 public schools, many in severely underserved regions. Congratulations Professor Riley on this well deserved award in recognition of all your hard work!

Elizabeth Connor Receives Distinguished Teaching Award

Professor Elizabeth Connor has been awarded the Distinguished Teaching Award for the 2012-2013 year. The Distinguished Teaching Award has been a feature of UMass Amherst for forty years and honors exemplary teaching at the highest institution level. Eligibility for this award originates from nominations made by both current students and alumni. Congratulations Dr. Connor on this well deserved honor!

Walker Named Gilgut Professor

Elsbeth Walker’s main area of research focuses on understanding the fundamental mechanisms underlying iron homeostasis in plants, which can set the foundation for increasing available iron in food crops. Her work on this subject began with the identification of Yellow Stripe1 (YS1), which encodes the iron-phytosiderophore transporter that is responsible for primary iron uptake in grass species. Subsequently, her group investigated the related family of proteins, YELLOW STRIPE1-LIKEs (YSLs), and demonstrated their involvement in the long distance movement of metals in plants. She is keenly interested in uncovering additional features of both the iron uptake, and long distance iron movement pathways. Elsbeth has more recently begun to investigate the genetic basis of taxol biosynthesis using cultured Taxus cells, using transcriptome analyses. She hopes that this effort will enable cheaper and more efficient production of this important anti-cancer drug.

Elsbeth is an enthusiastic teacher, and developed the popular course, Gene and Genome Analysis, an intensive lab experience that gives students the chance to develop both computer assisted bioinformatics skills as well as ‘wet lab’ molecular biology skills. She has directed the Plant Biology Graduate program for the past several years, coordinating close to 40 faculty from five campus departments into a program that currently enrolls 20 PhD students.

Maresca Awarded March of Dimes Foundation Grant

Biology Assistant Professor Tom Maresca has been awarded a Basil O’Connor Starter Scholar Research Award from the March of Dimes Foundation. The two year grant for $150,000 provides young investigators with initial independent funding to kick-start their research programs. A central goal of the March of Dimes is to fund research that promotes healthy pregnancies and reduces birth defects.

The Maresca lab will use the funds to investigate fundamental cell biological questions related to how cells detect and correct erroneous interactions between chromosomes and the spindle. This is particularly relevant to the mission of the March of Dimes because chromosome mis-segregation during cell division leads to a range of birth defects, including Down syndrome, and is the most common cause of miscarriages in the first trimester.