Current News

The Biology Intensive Orientation Session (BIOS) is a rigorous academic program designed to enhance the success of first-year students in life science majors. BIOS immerses incoming students in college-level biology coursework, and encourages interactions among academically like-minded students in the week just before the Fall semester. The BIOS experience includes lectures, discussions, writing and test experiences and engagement in a group project for presentation. Students are also embedded in campus life and become familiar with dorm living, dining halls, the layout of campus. Most importantly students meet each other, work together on challenging projects, and have a chance to develop friendships and study groups that can last for their entire college career and beyond. For more information about BIOS, please contact Susan Clevenger (suec@bio.umass.edu, 413-545-2287).

Click here to apply.

Plant cell biologist Magdalena Bezanilla has received a four-year, $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to further her award-winning research on fundamental processes of plant growth, in particular how molecules secreted by cells help to determine their outer shapes and patterns. Using a moss species that provides a simple, fast-growing model plant for which the whole genome is known, Benzanilla and her research team will manipulate the moss model by systematically altering the plants’ DNA blueprint to make minor changes in protein secretion, then evaluate what happens when proteins are altered one at a time.

The paper can be accessed here.

Lynn Adler, with collaborators from Dartmouth College, the USDA, and Kew Gardens has received new grants from NSF and USDA totaling nearly $1 million to study how floral chemical compounds affect bumble bee disease. Together, this research will address the extent to which bumble bees are exposed to floral chemical defenses in wild and agricultural systems, the impacts of such compounds on bumble bee health, the role of such compounds in disease transmission, and implications for managing bee disease in agricultural settings.

Biology Assistant Professor, Michele Markstein and Tony Ip, Professor in the Program in Medical Sciences at the UMass Worcester Medical School, have received an award from the UMass Life Sciences Moment Fund. The $150,000 award will be shared with Zhong Jiang, Professor of Pathology at UMass Worcester, and Nan Gao, Assistant Professor of Biology at Rutgers University. The team will perform small molecule screens in vivo using the model organism, Drosophila melanogaster, which they have engineered to grow intestinal tumors with human characteristics. Compounds that prevent the growth of these tumors will be tested and characterized in human organoid cultures and clinical samples, to initiate translation of their results from large-scale in vivo screens closer to human clinical applications.

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.

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!

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.

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.

The genomic integrity of an organism is at risk of being compromised every time one of its cells divides. This is because errors in chromosome segregation result in aneuploidy – an abnormal cell division outcome in which daughter cells acquire an incorrect set of chromosomes. Aneuploidy is a hallmark of many cancer cells and the cause of numerous developmental disorders as well as a majority of miscarriages in the first trimester. To ensure that DNA is accurately segregated during cell division, replicated chromosomes must interact with and become aligned by the spindle. Despite the importance of getting it right, cell division is error prone and dividing cells must constantly detect and correct erroneous interactions between chromosomes and the spindle to avoid aneuploidy.

The Maresca lab investigates a central, yet poorly understood contributor to the process of cell division - force. It is evident that forces produced by motors and microtubules stabilize correct interactions between chromosomes and the spindle; however, the molecular basis by which this is achieved is unclear. Research from the Maresca lab characterizing a mysterious cell division force known as the polar ejection force (PEF) has recently been published in and featured on the cover of The Journal of Cell Biology. Maresca, with MCB grad students Stuart Cane and Anna Ye and technician Sasha Luks-Morgan, found that erroneous interactions between chromosomes and spindle microtubules could not be corrected when the PEF was experimentally increased. Elevated PEFs led to dramatic chromosome mis-segregation and aneuploidy. The research reveals how an important molecular motor generates the PEF and how forces impact the accuracy of cell division by overwhelming error correction mechanisms.
Read more at Science Daily.
Read still more at JCB.

Biology Assistant Professor Tom Maresca was recently awarded the Child Health Research Award (CHRA) by the Charles H. Hood Foundation. The CHRA supports newly independent faculty in order to provide them the opportunity to demonstrate creativity and assist in the transition to other sources of research funding.

The two-year grant of $150,000 is awarded annually to five researchers who are within five years of their first faculty appointment at an academic, medical or research institution in New England. The Charles H. Hood Foundation aims to improve the health and quality of life for children through grant support of pediatric researchers.