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 its 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

2019 SACNAS Regional Meeting to be held at Brandeis

Brandeis University will be hosting the 2019 New England SACNAS Regional Meeting on Saturday, March 23, 2019 from 9am-5pm.

SACNAS is an inclusive organization dedicated to fostering the success of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans, from college students to professionals, in attaining advanced degrees, careers, and positions of leadership in STEM. More information about this event is available at the Brandeis SACNAS site.

Dr. Tepring Piquado, a Policy Researcher at RAND Corporation and Brandeis alum and Dr. Marcelle Soares-Santos, the Landsman Assistant Professor at Brandeis, will be keynote speakers. More information about the speakers and the Career and Professional development workshops and panel discussions are available as well.

This meeting is FREE, but all attendees must register by February 22, 2019.

 

2019 Sprout Awards Competition Announced

SPROUT logoThe Office of Technology Licensing (OTL) is excited to announce this year’s SPROUT awards competition!  SPROUT was created to help you bring your scientific research and entrepreneurial ambitions to life by providing seed funding and training to make your innovation a reality.

“It’s not just about the funding. It’s about all the opportunities that arise from participating in SPROUT” – Michael Rosbash, 2018 SPROUT PI

OTL, with support from the Office of the Provost & the Hassenfeld Family Innovation Center, will award up to a total of $100,000 divided among the most promising proposals seeking funding for lab-based innovations that require bench research, lab space and/or lab equipment.   All members of the Brandeis science community, including faculty, staff and students, are invited to submit an abstract for the 2019 round of funding. The preliminary application for abstract submission is now online.  These pre-applications must be received prior to 11pm on March 8th, 2019

In the past, successful SPROUT applications have come from all departments in the sciences including Biology, Biochemistry, Physics, and Chemistry.  Past candidates have proposed projects ranging from early-stage research and development to patent-ready projects.  Many undergraduates, graduates, staff and faculty have all pitched various projects from Vaccines Targeting HIV Sugars (Krauss Lab) to an Assay Kit for RNA-binding Protein Target (Rosbash Lab).

Have questions?  OTL is offering 20 minute appointment slots the week of February 28 at our office in Bernstein-Marcus, room 140.  Sign up here.

Eve Marder and Liqun Luo receive 2019 NAS awards

Eve Marder NAS award

Eve Marder, the Victor and Gwendolyn Beinfield Professor of Neuroscience, has received the 2019 National Academy of Sciences Award in the Neurosciences. The National Academy of Sciences is recognizing “Marder’s research of over more than 40 years that has provided transformative insight into the fundamental processes of animal and human brains.” NAS also called Marder “one of the most influential neuroscientists of her generation”.

Liqun Luo

In addition to her research, NAS acknowledged Marder’s impact upon young scientists working in her field. She has served as a mentor to “generations of neuroscientists”.  A book titled “Lessons from the Lobster: Eve Marder’s Work in Neuroscience” by Charlotte Nassim and was published in 2018.

The NAS Award in the Neurosciences is given only once every three years.

In addition to Marder, a Ph.D. alumnus is among the 18 scientists that are being recognized this year. Liqun Luo received the Pradel Research Award.  In the press release, NAS cited Luo’s “pioneering research into neural circuits of invertebrates and vertebrates.”

Luo earned his Ph.D. in Biology from Brandeis in 1992. He worked in Kalpana White’s lab. He is now a Professor and HHMI Investigator at Stanford University.

Read more at Brandeis Now.

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