Cepko to present Lisman Memorial Lecture April 9, 2019

Constance CepkoFor the 11th year, a top neuroscientist specializing in vision will present an awarded lecture to the Brandeis community. This year’s awardee is Dr. Connie Cepko of Harvard Medical School and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, an expert in retinal development and molecular tool design. Connie will present a lecture entitled “Development of the Vertebrate Retina and Nanobodies as Regulators of Intracellular Activities” at 12:30pm in Gerstenzang 121.

The Lisman Memorial Lecture honors the memory of John E. Lisman (’66), who was a faculty member in Biology from 1973 until his death in 2017. The award is endowed through the generous contribution of Brandeis alumni Jay Pepose ’75, MA’75, P’08, P’17, and his wife, Susan K. Feigenbaum ’74, P’08, P’17. (Alumni.brandeis.edu)

Brandeis grad is the first woman to receive the Abel Prize in Mathematics

Karen Uhlenbeck giving a talk

Credit: Andrea Kane

By Ruth Charney, Theodore and Evelyn Berenson Professor of Mathematics

We are thrilled to announce that Karen Uhlenbeck has won the 2019 Abel Prize in Mathematics.  Uhlenbeck received her PhD from Brandeis in 1968 and was awarded an honorary degree by Brandeis in 2008.  The Abel prize, which is given out by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, is one of the most prestigious awards in mathematics and has never before been awarded to a woman. The prize recognizes Uhlenbeck “for her pioneering achievements in geometric partial differential equations, gauge theory and integrable systems, and for the fundamental impact of her work on analysis, geometry and mathematical physics.”  Hans Munthe-Kaas, Chair of the Abel Committee, notes that “Her theories have revolutionized our understanding of minimal surfaces, such as those formed by soap bubbles, and more general minimization problems in higher dimensions.”  She has also been a strong advocate for women in mathematics.  www.eurekalert.org, www.nature.com

GreenLabs Recycling: An Innovative Answer to Lab Waste

GreenLabs Recycling

Several years ago, Brenda Lemos and David Waterman, at the time Brandeis graduate students working in Jim Haber’s lab, noticed that clean, polypropylene (#5 plastic) pipette tip boxes were being thrown away. Although never contaminated in the lab, these boxes are typically labeled “medical waste” and blocked from recycling, ultimately ending up in landfills. This is a problem given that 10 million pipette boxes are purchased each year and most often can’t be reloaded and reused. The boxes end up becoming part of the 6 million tons of plastic waste that are produced by 20,500 research institutions world-wide.

That is when the now Dr. Waterman and the future Dr. Lemos, created the GreenLabs Recycling program. Rather than the pipette boxes being disposed of in a landfill, they are now being diverted into recycling at the point of use by the people who are using them.

Pipette box binThe system works this way: GreenLabs Recycling places recycling bins at participating labs. Scientists in the labs place the pipette boxes into the recycling bins as they are used. “Participation in this program has been great. Other scientists understand the importance of recycling these materials,” David said.  Brenda and David collect the bins and bring the materials back to a facility in Acton. There the boxes are sorted by cleanliness, color and type of plastic. After sorting, the boxes are granulated and used at local manufacturers. They prefer to use Massachusetts-based manufacturers in order to reduce the environmental impact of shipping the materials.

They are currently collecting lab plastics at five locations – Brandeis, other universities, and small and large biotech companies in the area. They expect to be soon working with two additional locations.

What are the future plans for GreenLabs Recycling? David said that they would eventually like to take the recycled plastics and manufacture their own long-lasting, permanent products such as trash cans, recycling bins, and non-disposable office products.

David credits the Brandeis Innovations Sprout Program and Icorp™ Program for their support. “They have been a huge help”, he said.

GreenLabs will be participating in the Mass Innovation Nights event on Thursday, March 14. This event will be held from 6:00 to 8:00 PM at the Faculty Club and features new, innovative products from Brandeis students, alumni, and staff. This event is free and open to the public.

Student Research Results in Recent JIB Paper

Images from research paper from Pochapsky and Lovett labsBy Thomas Pochapsky, Professor of Chemistry & Biochemistry

We don’t usually consider PineSol, Vick’s VapoRub and Lemon Pledge as food, but it is a good thing that some bacteria can.  The active components of those products are terpenes, small organic molecules that are produced by evergreens to repel insects, promote wound healing and prevent infection.  The bacteria that can use terpenes as food are a critical part of the forest ecosystem:  Without them, the soil would rapidly become saturated with toxic terpenes.  Members of the Pochapsky and Lovett laboratories in Chemistry and Biology are curious about what enzymes are involved in terpene metabolism.  In particular, why would one bacterial strain feast on a particular terpene (camphor, for example) while ignoring others?

The first step in terpene breakdown by bacteria is often the addition of an oxygen atom at a particular place in the terpene molecule, providing a “handle” for subsequent enzymes in the breakdown pathway.  The enzymes that catalyze these oxygenation reactions are called cytochromes P450.  P450 enzymes perform important reactions in humans, including steroid hormone biosynthesis and drug metabolism and activation.  Human P450s are targets for cancer chemotherapy and treatment of fungal infections.  A specific inhibitor of P450 is a component of the AIDS “cocktail” treatment, slowing the breakdown of the other cocktail components so the drugs do not have to be taken as often.

Despite the importance and wide scope of the P450 enzyme family, we don’t know much about how a particular P450 goes about choosing a molecule to work on (the substrate) or where it will put the oxygen (the product).  This is what the Brandeis labs are interested in finding out.  What particular sequence of amino acids gives rise to the substrate/product combination of a given P450? Answers to this question will aid in drug design and bio-engineering projects.

The project employs multiple scientific techniques in order to get at the answers to these questions, including bacterial genome sequencing, messenger RNA transcription, enzyme isolation, activity assays, mass spectrometry and enzyme structure determination.  As complicated as it sounds, though, the project lends itself nicely to undergraduate research:  Three of the authors on this paper are undergraduates, Phillix Esquea ‘18, Hannah Lloyd ’20 and Yihao Zhuang ’18.  Phillix was a Brandeis Science Posse recruit, and is now working with a Wall Street investment bank in NYC.  Yihao is enrolled in graduate school at the University of Michigan School of Pharmacy, and Hannah Lloyd is still at Brandeis, continuing her work on the project.  Even high school students got in on the act:  Teddy Pochapsky and Jeffrey Matthews are both seniors at Malden Catholic High School, and collected soil samples used for isolation of terpene-eating bacterial strains.  (One of the newly isolated bacterial strains is named in their honor, Pseudomonas strain TPJM).

“A new approach to understanding structure-function relationships in cytochromes P450 by targeting terpene metabolism in the wild.” Nathan R.Wong, Xinyue Liu, Hannah Lloyd, Allison M. Colthart, Alexander E. Ferrazzoli, Deani L. Cooper, Yihao Zhuang, Phillix Esquea, Jeffrey Futcher, Theodore M. Pochapsky, Jeffrey M. Matthews, Thomas C. Pochapsky.  Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry. Volume 188, November 2018, Pages 96-101.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jinorgbio.2018.08.006.

The Volen Center Turns 25 Years Old

Construction of Volen Center

Since its construction at the heart of the Brandeis campus, the Volen National Center for Complex Systems has been a key focal point of the Brandeis campus. The structure was dedicated on October 20, 1994 and has served as a gateway to the Brandeis Science Complex for the past 25 years. Planning for the construction of the building began in 1989 with funding from the federal government. Additional funding from the government and donations from benefactors followed. The total cost of construction was over $31 million.

The Center’s primary focus is the study of one of the most complex of complex systems – the human brain and mind. When the Volen Center was formed in 1989, its mission statement was “to advance our understanding of cognitive processes, perceptions, neuroscience, and the development and application of parallel computer systems.” As part of this mission, a retreat was first held in May 1989. This retreat has evolved into the annual Volen Retreat. True to the collaborative focus of the Center, the Volen Retreat includes talks from multiple disciplines of Brandeis faculty. Thanks to the M. R. Bauer Foundation, a lecture series and week-long Distinguished Lecturer Visitors series brings scientists from all over the world  to the Brandeis campus to talk about their research and interact with faculty, postdocs and graduate students.

The bricks and mortar of the Volen Center provided essential office and lab space. In addition to the building, new Brandeis faculty became a part of the Volen Center. Leslie Griffith joined the Center in September 1992. Susan Birren followed in July 1993 and Jordan Pollack in September 1994. Faculty and labs of Computer Science, Linguistics, Biochemistry and Neuroscience moved into the completed structure in May 1994.

What has been impact of the Volen Center? Barbara Wrightson, who was the Program Project Coordinator during the Volen construction and is now the Director of Budget and Planning in the Office of the Dean of Arts and Sciences, said that “the Volen Center helped to nurture the fabulous growth of the neuroscience program at Brandeis.” Additionally, shortly after moving into Volen, the Computer Science department experienced a boom in enrollment. The department saw it’s enrollment double in the decade after the Center opened.


Encoding taste and place in the hippocampus

The ambience of a good meal can sometimes be as memorable as the taste of the food itself. A new study from Shantanu Jadhav and Donald Katz’s labs, published in the February 18 edition of The Journal of Neuroscience, may help explain why. This research identified a subset of neurons in the hippocampus of rats that respond to both places and tastes.

The hippocampus is a brain region that has long been implicated in learning and memory, especially in the spatial domain. Neurons in this area called “place cells” respond to specific locations as animals explore their environments. The hippocampus is also connected to the taste system and active during taste learning. However, little is known about taste processing in the hippocampus. Can place cells help demarcate the locations of food?

To test this hypothesis, Neuroscience PhD student Linnea Herzog, together with staff member Leila May Pascual and Brandeis undergraduates Seneca Scott and Elon Mathieson, recorded from neurons in the hippocampus of rats as the rats explored a chamber. At the same time, different tastes were delivered directly onto the rats’ tongues.

Analyzing how place cells responded to tastes delivered inside or outside of their place field

The researchers found that about 20% of hippocampal neurons responded to tastes, and could discriminate between tastes based on palatability. Of these taste-responsive neurons, place cells only responded to tastes that were consumed within that cell’s preferred location. These results suggest that taste responses are overlaid onto existing mental maps. These place- and taste-responsive cells form a cognitive “taste map” that may help animals remember the locations of food.

Read more:  So close, rats can almost taste it

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