The Rogers Lab receives a prestigious international grant to study the origin of life

HFSP logoProfessor W. Benjamin Rogers in the Department of Physics has been awarded a 2020 Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) collaborative Program Grant to create a self-propagating synthetic cell. The HFSP Program Grants aim to tackle big questions in the life sciences by supporting and bringing together researchers with different backgrounds from different countries. Professor Rogers’ team grant was one of 20 successful Program Grants that went through a year-long global selection process.

The project aims to build a stably-propagating cell from simple components. The cell will have a lipid membrane encapsulating DNA and transcription-translation machinery, and be able to grow and divide by internally synthesizing its own membrane material.

The project is significant because a stably propagating cell is a vital element of natural selection. Extant life on Earth is a consequence of natural selection acting upon earlier forms of life, shaping the lineages over time. Thus at some point early in life’s origins, a sustainably propagating cell must have emerged, allowing selective advantages to accumulate over successive generations. For daughter cells to have retained the attributes of their parent, both the genetic information and the cell contents must have been replicated with reasonable fidelity.  However, it is currently unclear how controlled cell division could have first emerged from relatively simple molecules. It is precisely this mystery that the team hopes to understand by attempting to recreate it in a test tube.

Professor Rogers’ grant is shared with Dr. Yutetsu Kuruma from Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology and Professor Anna Wang from University of New South Wales in Australia.

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.

Jeff Gelles to Receive 2019 BPS Kazuhito Kinosita Award in Single-Molecule Biophysics

Congratulations to Jeff Gelles, Aron and Imre Tauber Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Pharmacology. He will receive the 2019 Kazuhito Kinosita Award in Single-Molecule Biophysics from the Biophysical Society (BPS). He will be honored at the Society’s 63rd Annual Meeting at the Baltimore Convention Center on March 5, 2019, during the annual Awards Symposium.

The award, named for Professor Kazuhiko Kinosita, seeks to advance cross-disciplinary research and cultivate an appreciation of single-molecule studies. BPS President Angela Gronenborn, University of Pittsburgh, said “Jeff has conducted single-molecule studies at the highest level and continues to spark interests in engaging others in single-molecule studies.” (BPS Press Release)

Ivanovic Receives 2017 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award

photo: Mike Lovett

Assistant Professor of Biochemistry Tijana Ivanovic has received a 2017 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award. This award is part of the NIH’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research program, designed to fund early career investigators who propose innovative and potentially transformative projects. Ivanovic will receive $1,500,000 in direct costs over five years to spearhead a research program aimed at comprehensively characterizing molecular changes in the viral cell-entry protein hemagglutinin (HA) that define pandemic influenza viruses. With the generated insights, Ivanovic hopes to ultimately be in a position to predict the pandemic potential of influenza viruses circulating in nature.

HA densely covers the influenza virion surface, where it allows the virus to both recognize and penetrate (fuse with) the cells of its host. HA is also a key target of neutralizing antibodies that protect us from influenza infection. An influenza pandemic is characterized by the adaptation of a new HA subtype to cell entry into human cells (of what was originally an avian virus). Without the pre-existing immunity to protect us, the virus quickly spreads around the globe. During pandemic adaptation, both HA functions in target-cell recognition and membrane fusion undergo key molecular changes. Ivanovic will use a custom-built Total Internal Reflection Fluorescence Microscope (TIRFM) to visualize, in real time, individual virus particles as they engage and fuse with target cell membranes. This system will allow her to obtain large-scale quantitative information about distinct HA functions at an unprecedented level of detail. She will compare avian viruses with their evolutionary offspring that infected humans, including past pandemic strains. She hopes to develop models for predicting which viruses will lead to a major flu outbreak.

Ivanovic obtained a PhD in virology from Harvard University and carried out postdoctoral research with Stephen Harrison in molecular biophysics. She integrates these diverse backgrounds in her laboratory, where members are trained across these two and other synergistic areas (such as laser microscope optics, and analytical and computational modeling). The funds from the New Innovator award have created new opportunities for hiring, and the lab is actively recruiting postdocs, PhD students (from the Biochemistry and Biophysics, Molecular and Cell Biology, and Physics graduate programs) and undergraduate researchers to undertake this ambitious program.

Jordan Pollack Receives Lifetime Achievement Award

Jordan Pollack

The International Society for Artificial Life. has awarded a lifetime achievement award to Jordan Pollack, Professor of Computer Science and Chairman of Computer Science department, for his work on robotics, computer-simulated evolution and artificial life forms. Pollack, who has been a Brandeis faculty member for the past 23 years, is also the director of the Dynamical & Evolutionary Machine Organization (DEMO). DEMO is a research lab where Pollack and his students study recurrent neural networks, evolutionary computation, and dynamical systems.

Pollack received the lifetime award last week (September 4-8) at The European Conference on Artificial Life 2017 in Lyon, France. Nick Moran and Jordan Pollack’s paper “Effects of Cooperative and Competitive Coevolution on Complexity in a Linguistic Prediction Game” (MITCogNet) also received the best paper award at the conference.

In an interview with Brandeis Now, Professor Pollack discusses his career and research.

Amy Lee Named 2017 Searle Scholar

Figure from Amy Lee

Assistant Professor of Biology Amy Si-Ying Lee was named a 2017 Searle Scholar, receiving $300,000 in flexible funding to support her work over the next three years. Lee’s research is focused on discovering how gene regulation occurs through novel mechanisms of mRNA translation. Specifically, her lab studies how non-canonical translation pathways shape cell growth and differentiation, and why defects in mRNA translation lead to developmental disorders and cancer.

Lee, who came to Brandeis in Summer 2016, has a PhD form Harvard and did her postdoc at UC Berkeley. She has also been awarded a 2017 Sloan Research Fellowship and in January won the Charles H. Hood Foundation Child Health Research Award. Lee’s lab is up and running and recruiting postdocs and PhD students (through the Molecular & Cell Biology and Biochemistry & Biophysics graduate programs). In Fall 2017, Lee will teach BIOL 105, Molecular Biology.

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