Simons Foundation funds Brandeis Math, Physics collaborations

In 2014, the Simons Foundation, one of the world’s largest and most prominent basic science philanthropies, launched an unprecedented program to fund multi-year, international research collaborations in mathematics and theoretical physics. These are $10M grants over four years, renewable, that aim to drive progress on fundamental scientific questions of major importance in mathematics, theoretical physics, and theoretical computer science. There were 82 proposals in this first round. In September 2015, two were funded. Both involve Brandeis.

Matthew Headrick (Physics) is deputy director of the Simons Collaboration It from Qubit, which involves 16 faculty members at 15 institutions in six countries. This project is trying from multiple angles to bring together physics and quantum information theory, and show how some fundamental physical phenomena (spacetime, black holes etc.) emerge from the very nature of quantum information. Fundamental physics and quantum information theory remain distinct disciplines and communities, separated by significant barriers to communication and collaboration. “It from Qubit” is a large-scale effort by some of the leading researchers in both communities to foster communication, education and collaboration between them, thereby advancing both fields and ultimately solving some of the deepest problems in physics. The overarching scientific questions motivating the Collaboration include:

  • Does spacetime emerge from entanglement?
  • Do black holes have interiors?
  • Does the universe exist outside our horizon?
  • What is the information-theoretic structure of quantum field theories?
  • Can quantum computers simulate all physical phenomena?
  • How does quantum information flow in time?

Bong Lian (Mathematics) is a member of the Simons Collaboration on Homological Mirror Symmetry, which involves nine investigators from eight different institutions in three countries. Mirror Symmetry, first discovered by theoretical physicists in late ‘80s, is a relationship between two very different-looking physical models of Nature, a remarkable equivalence or “duality” between different versions of a particular species of multidimensional space or shape (Calabi-Yau manifolds) that seemed to give rise to the same physics. People have been trying to give a precise and general mathematical description of this mirroring ever since, and in the process have generated a long list of very surprising and far-reaching mathematical predictions and conjectures. The so-called “Homological Mirror Symmetry Conjecture” (HMS) may be thought of as a culmination of these efforts, and Lian was a member of the group (including S.-T. Yau) that gave a proof of a precursor to HMS in a series of papers in the late ‘90s.

Lian and his Simons collaborators are determined to prove HMS in full generality and explore its applications. One consequence of HMS says that if one starts from a “complex manifold” (a type of even-dimensioned space that geometers have been studying since Riemann described the first examples in 1845), then all its internal geometric structures can in fact be described using a certain partner space, called a “symplectic manifold”. The latter type of space was a mathematical edifice invented to understand classical physics in the mid-1900s. This connection goes both ways: any internal geometric structure of the symplectic partner also has an equally compelling description using the original complex partner. No one had even remotely expected such a connection, especially given that the discoveries of the two types of spaces — complex and symplectic — were separated by more than 100 years and were invented for very different reasons. If proven true, HMS will give us ways to answer questions about the internal geometric structure of a complex manifold by studying its symplectic partner, and vice versa.

Proving HMS will also help resolve many very difficult problems in enumerative geometry that for more than a century were thought to be intractable. Enumerative geometry is an ancient (and until recently moribund) branch of geometry in which people count the number of geometric objects of a particular type that can be contained inside a space. Mirror symmetry and HMS have turned enumerative geometry into a new way to characterize and relate shapes and spaces.

Fruit flies alter their sleep to beat the heat

Do you have trouble sleeping at night in the summer when it is really hot?

Does a warm sunny day make you want to take a nap?

You are not alone — fruit flies also experience changes in their sleep patterns when ambient temperature is high. In a new paper in Current Biology, research scientist Katherine Parisky and her co-workers from the Griffith lab show that hot temperatures cause animals to sleep more during the day and less at night, and then investigate the mechanisms governing the behavior.

The increase in daytime sleep is caused by a complex interplay between light and the circadian clock. The balance between daytime gains and nighttime losses at high temperatures is also influenced by homeostatic processes that work to keep total daily sleep amounts constant. This study shows how the nervous system deals with changes caused by environmental conditions to maintain normal operations.

Parisky KM, Agosto Rivera JL, Donelson NC, Kotecha S, Griffith LC. Reorganization of Sleep by Temperature in Drosophila Requires Light, the Homeostat, and the Circadian Clock. Curr Biol. 2016.

Acid, Base and Electrical Charge at the Water Surface

Liquid water seems simple, but there’s a lot of chemistry going on in it.
It is common knowledge that, in pure water, under ordinary conditions, 1 in every 10 million H2O molecules is dissociated into the acid ion H+ and the base ion OH. However, what preference, if any, these self-ions of water have to sit at the air water interface has been the subject of lengthy and heated debate. The question is consequential in a wide range of contexts, including on the surface of droplets in the atmosphere and at the surfaces of biomolecules.  The Herzfeld group has now bridged the gap between experiment and theory by using a model that efficiently balances three subtle features of water molecules (polarizability, H+ sharing, and H+ transfer) that control the ambient behavior of the liquid. The model predicts that OH– prefers the air-water interface while H+ avoids it, consistent with observations of the response of air bubbles in water to an applied electric field.
water
Bai C, Herzfeld J. Surface Propensities of the Self-Ions of Water. ACS Central Science. 2016.

Sleep suppresses brain rebalancing

Why humans and other animals sleep is one of the remaining deep mysteries of physiology. One prominent theory in neuroscience is that sleep is when the brain replays memories “offline” to better encode them (“memory consolidation”). A prominent and competing theory is that sleep is important for re-balancing activity in brain networks that have been perturbed during learning while awake. Such “rebalancing” of brain activity involves homeostatic plasticity mechanisms that were first discovered at Brandeis University, and have been thoroughly studied by a number of Brandeis labs including the Turrigiano lab. Now, a study from the Turrigiano lab just published in the journal Cell shows that these homeostatic mechanisms are indeed gated by sleep and wake, but in the opposite direction from that theorized previously: homeostatic brain rebalancing occurs exclusively when animals are awake, and is suppressed by sleep. These findings raise the intriguing possibility that different forms of brain plasticity – for example those involved in memory consolidation and those involved in homeostatic rebalancing – must be temporally segregated from each other to prevent interference.

sleeprats

The requirement that neurons carefully maintain an average firing rate, much like the thermostat in a house senses and maintains temperature, has long been suggested by computational work. Without homeostatic (“thermostat-like”) control of firing rates, models of neural networks cannot learn and drift into states of epilepsy-like saturation or complete quiescence. Much of the work in discovering and describing candidate mechanisms continues to be conducted at Brandeis. In 2013, the Turrigiano Lab provided the first ­in vivo evidence for firing rate homeostasis in the mammalian brain: lab members recorded the activity of individual neurons in the visual cortex of freely behaving rat pups for 8h per day across a nine-day period during which vision through one eye was occluded. The activity of neurons initially dropped, but over the next 4 days, firing rates came back to basal levels despite the visual occlusion. In essence, these experiments confirmed what had long been suspected – the activity of neurons in intact brains is indeed homeostatically governed.

Due to the unique opportunity to study a fundamental mechanism of brain plasticity in an unrestrained animal, the lab has been probing the possibility of an intersection between an animal’s behavior and homeostatic plasticity. In order to truly evaluate possible circadian and behavioral influences on neuronal homeostasis, it was necessary to capture the entire 9-day experiment, rather than evaluate snapshots of each day. For this work, the Turrigiano Lab had to find creative computational solutions to recording many terabytes of data necessary to follow the activity of single neurons without interruption for more than 200 hours. Ultimately, these data revealed that the homeostatic regulation of neuronal activity in the cortex is gated by sleep and wake states. In a surprising and unpredicted twist, the homeostatic recovery of activity occurred almost exclusively during periods of activity and was inhibited during sleep. Prior predictions either assumed no role for behavioral state, or that sleeping would account for homeostasis. Finally, the lab established evidence for a causal role for active waking by artificially enhancing natural waking periods during the homeostatic rebound. When animals were kept awake, homeostatic plasticity was further enhanced.

This finding opens doors onto a new field of understanding the behavioral, environmental, and circadian influences on homeostatic plasticity mechanisms in the brain. Some of the key questions that immediately beg to be answered include:

  • What it is about sleep that precludes the expression of homeostatic plasticity?
  • How is it possible that mechanisms requiring complex patterns of transcription, translation, trafficking, and modification can be modulated on the short timescales of behavioral state-transitions in rodents?
  • And finally, how generalizable is this finding? As homeostasis is bidirectional, does a shift in the opposite direction similarly require wake or does the change in sign allow for new rules in expression?

Authors on the paper include postdoctoral fellow Keith Hengen, Neuroscience grad student Alejandro Torrado Pachedo, and Neuroscience undergraduate James McGregor ’14 (now in grad school at Emory).

Hengen KB, Torrado Pacheco A, McGregor JN, Van Hooser SD, Turrigiano GG. Neuronal Firing Rate Homeostasis is Inhibited by Sleep and Promoted by Wake. Cell. 2016.

Tissue-specific tagging of endogenous proteins in the fruit fly

Seeing is believing, and fluorescently tagged proteins have ushered in a major revolution in cell biology. Instead of observing the static components of dead cells fixed in plastic and reacted with dyes, tagged proteins fluorescing a variety of colors can be tracked in real time in live cells and organisms. We can peek at the previously only imaginable perpetual dynamism of life at the molecular level. In addition to turning us into spell-bound voyeurs, well-defined fluorescent tags also give us a hand-hold to isolate the binding partners of proteins of interest.

In a recent article by the Rodal lab reported in Biology Open, the authors report a new tagging methods designed to get rid of technological artifacts that can cause fluorescently tagged proteins to be expressed at the wrong time and place, and at the wrong levels. By using CRISPR mediated gene editing in fruit flies, they developed a novel approach to visualize any protein of choice in any tissue of choice at the level, localization and time that nature has intended. This method, dubbed T-STEP (for tissue-specific tagging of endogenous proteins), opens up novel experimental avenues to answer long-standing questions in several areas of neuroscience and cell biology, such as: how many different neurotransmitters are expressed in one neuronal circuit? Which tissue-type is a protein expressed in and when? What happens to a disease carrying mutant protein in a tissue of interest at endogenous levels?

tstep

As a proof of principle, two endosomal proteins, Vps35 (linked to Parkinson’s disease) and OCRL (linked to Lowe syndrome), which have never before been seen or localized in fruit flies, have now been visualized live at endogenous levels. Moreover, a Parkinson’s disease-specific mutation (D620N) in Vps35 has also been tagged with fluorescent proteins, opening up exciting new research avenues for interrogating binding partners and/or kinetics that may be altered during the diseased states.

In summary, T-STEP is an exciting novel tool that offers a simple and efficient method to tissue-specifically tag any protein at endogenous levels. Authors from the Rodal lab include Kate Koles (Research Scientist) and Anna Yeh ’16.

Lipids hit a “sweet spot” to direct cellular membrane remodeling.

Lipid membrane reshaping is critical to many common cellular processes, including cargo trafficking, cell motility, and organelle biogenesis. The Rodal lab studies how dynamic membrane remodeling is achieved by the active interplay between lipids and proteins. Recent results, published in Cell Reports, demonstrate that for the membrane remodeling protein Nervous Wreck (Nwk), intramolecular autoregulation and membrane charge work together in surprising ways to restrict remodeling to a limited range of lipid compositions.

F-BAR (Fes/Cip4 homology Bin/Amphiphysin/Rvs) domain family proteins are important mediators of membrane remodeling events. The F-BAR domain forms a crescent-shaped α-helical dimer that interacts with and deforms negatively charged membrane phospholipids by assembling into higher-order scaffolds. In this paper, Kelley et al. have shown that the neuronal F-BAR protein Nwk is autoregulated by its C-terminal SH3 domains, which interact directly with the F-BAR domain to inhibit membrane binding. Until now, the dogma in the field has been that increasing concentrations of negatively charged lipids would increase Nwk membrane binding, and thus would induce membrane deformation.

Surprisingly, Kelley et al. found that autoregulation does not mediate this kind of simple “on-off” switch for membrane remodeling. Instead, increasing the concentration of negatively charged lipids increases membrane binding, but inhibits F-BAR membrane deforming activities (see below). Using a combination of in vitro assays and single particle electron microscopy, they found that the Nwk F-BAR domain efficiently assembles into higher-order structures and deforms membranes only within “sweet spot” of negative membrane charge, and that autoregulation elevates this range. The implication of this work is that autoregulation could either reduce membrane binding or promote higher-order assembly, depending on local cellular membrane composition. This study suggests a significant role for the regulation of membrane composition in remodeling.

Brandeis authors on the study included Molecular and Cell Biology graduate students Charlotte Kelley and Shiyu Wang, staff member Tania Eskin, and undergraduate Emily Messelaar ’13 from the Rodal lab; postdoctoral fellow Kangkang Song, Associate Professor of Biology Daniela Nicastro (currently at UT Southwestern), and Associate Professor of Physics Michael Hagan.

Kelley CF, Messelaar EM, Eskin TL, Wang S, Song K, Vishnia K, Becalska AN, Shupliakov O, Hagan MF, Danino D, Sokolova OS, Nicastro D, Rodal AA. Membrane Charge Directs the Outcome of F-BAR Domain Lipid Binding and Autoregulation. Cell reports. 2015;13(11):2597-609.

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