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Prominent Plant Biologist Keiko Torii Joins Faculty

Prominent Plant Biologist Keiko Torii Joins Faculty

Keiko Torii

A plant biologist whose work has implications for the medical and agricultural fields, as well as improving plant resiliency in the face of climate change, is making the move to Texas this year. Professor Keiko Torii, a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator and plant biologist, will join the faculty of the Molecular Biosciences Department at The University of Texas at Austin in September 2019.

Torii studies functional tissue patterning, stem cell maintenance and differentiation and how plant cells determine function.

Before joining the faculty of the University of Washington, Torii studied biochemistry and biophysics at the University of Tsukuba in Japan. During her post-doctoral work, she discovered for the first time that plants have receptors that perceive signals from neighboring cells, similar in structure to insulin receptors in humans. Torii recalls that she was truly fascinated about her work--as it suggested that the plant cells, like our human cells, can talk to each other using a similar type of receptor. Indeed, she initially wanted to study basic biomedical science in college, but she made a dramatic change in her career decision to pursue plant molecular biology instead.

“When I heard about (plant genetic engineering) in a lecture, I thought that because the field is just blooming, perhaps there is room for opportunity here,” she said. “I felt like there was a huge prairie or open land in front of me.”

Torii is a founding member of the Institute of Transformative BioMolecules at Nagoya University, part of Japan’s World Premier International Research Center Initiative, pursuing cross-disciplinary research of synthetic chemistry and plant/animal biology. She was a winner of the Saruhashi Prize in 2015, a prize recognizing an outstanding and influential woman scientist in Japan each year. Torii is also an elected fellow of American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS) and American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB).

Much of Torii’s recent work has centered on plant stomata, the mouth-like structure on the surfaces of land plants that allow for gas and moisture to be exchanged with the atmosphere. How the stomata operate, and how different plant cells communicate with each other about which ones will become stomata has been an important question in her work.

“Stomata are only 10 to 20 microns in size, but the total water content of Earth’s atmosphere is estimated to cycle through plant stomata every six months,” Torii said. “Everything plants do is so critical to our survival and plant science is becoming more important in every aspect.”

Torii said she was attracted to the University of Texas because of the potential for collaboration and integrative approaches across fields of medicine, molecular biology and plant biology.

“Texas offers a unique environment for me to pursue this very basic developmental biology while getting more into plant resilience research, especially in light of changing global climate,” she said.

microscopy image of mutant plant epidermis

Image above: In order for stomata to function, they have to be spread out and evenly distributed within a leaf surface. By tweeting the activity of a ‘master regulatory’ gene that drive differentiation of stomata, one can convert all cells on a leaf surface to become stomata. Shown is a microscopy image of such mutant epidermis. Pink color highlights the outlines of individual cells, most of them differentiating into tiny months (stomata made of a pair of guard cells surrounding a pore). Green color is from engineered Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) that marks the differentiation of stomatal progenitor cells.” Images taken by Dr. Kylee Peterson (former Torii lab member)

The Making of a Functional Ribosome

The Making of a Functional Ribosome

ribosome

The Taylor and Johnson laboratories in the Department of Molecular Biosciences have revealed how the final puzzle piece is inserted to make a functional ribosome, the incredible cellular machine that creates all proteins in cells. Using cryo-electron microscopy at the recently opened Sauer Structural Biology Laboratory in the College of Natural Sciences, their study, published in Nature Communications, presents six snapshots of the ribosome during its assembly. 

Postdoctoral fellow Yi Zhou, the first author of the paper, showed how the final piece, called Rpl10, is inserted to create the catalytic center where all cellular proteins are stitched together. Genetics performed by Sharmishtha Musalgaonkar, also a postdoc and the second author of the study, confirmed that this concert of events leading to Rpl10 insertion is required in living cells. 

Research in the Johnson laboratory is funded by the National Institutes of Health. Research in the Taylor laboratory is funded by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, the Welch Foundation, and the Army Research Office. 

McLellan Awarded Young Investigator in Virology Prize

McLellan1Associate Professor Jason McLellan won the 2019 Viruses Young Investigator in Virology Prize. He will address attendees at the 2020 Viruses Conference in Barcelona, Spain (Feb 5-7, 2020), and receive a financial award and plaque.

"His work has led to significant advances in our understanding of broadly neutralizing antibody binding to the V1/ V2 domain of the HIV-1 envelope glycoprotein the structural basis for neutralization of respiratory syncytial virus," said Viruses Editor-in-Chief, Eric O. Freed.

McLellan also was featured earlier this month in a cover article in the Austin American-Statesman about how the University of Texas System’s endowment supports recruiting top faculty members. McLellan, who joined the faculty in 2017, was already doing groundbreaking research with implications for potential therapies and vaccines to treat viruses such as HIV, RSV, MERS and SARS. He previously was a faculty member at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth. 

Biologists Find Day and Night Pathways Regulating Plant Growth Vigor

Arabidopsis hybrids

Photo: Hybrid plants (middle two) grow larger and more vigorously than the parents (left and right).

Scientists are slowly unravelling the complex molecular pathways that regulate growth vigor in plant hybrids, with the goal of eventually developing hybrid crops that can grow faster and more productively, while at the same time doing a better job of resisting stress such as heat, drought and pests. Many crops such as corn are grown as hybrids for better yield and traits.

In a new study out this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from The University of Texas at Austin and Peking University identified two new pathways that influence plant growth in hybrids of Arabidopsis, a weedy plant in the mustard family. One pathway works in the daytime via compounds in the circadian clock, a central regulator for plant growth; the other works at night via compounds called phytochrome interacting factors.

These two pathways work by turning up or down a hybrid plant’s production of ethylene, a hormone which inhibits vegetative growth. Because these pathways exist in all plants including most commercially important crops—such as corn, cotton, lettuce and tomatoes—altering ethylene production in these crops might boost yield too.

This project was a collaboration between four different research groups, headed by the D. J. Sibley Centennial Professor Z. Jeffrey Chen, assistant professor Hong Qiao, and professor Enamul Huq, all three in the Department of Molecular Biosciences at UT Austin; and Xing Wang Deng, professor and Dean of the School of Advanced Agriculture Sciences and School of Life Sciences at Peking University.

Chen said there are several ways the new findings of regulating plant growth vigor might be used to boost crop yields: plant breeders could do genetic tests to identify parent plants for cross breeding that reduce ethylene production; biotech companies could genetically engineer crops with lower ethylene production; or farmers could apply chemicals that inhibit ethylene production in crops growing in the field.

arabidopsis700

Photo credit: Alberto Salguero Quiles. Image used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Study of Immune Protein Could Help Fight Tuberculosis, Other Pathogens

Scientists at UT Austin have revealed how a protein called ISG15 helps the human immune system fight certain pathogens, including the microbe that causes tuberculosis. In 2012, the group was part of a study that demonstrated that ISG15 stimulates the release of a cytokine, Interferon-g, important in the response to pathogenic bacteria. With this latest work, published this week in the journal Molecular Cell, these scientists have identified the cell surface receptor for ISG15 and determined the initial steps in how it activates the secretion of a range of cytokines.

Jon Huibregtse, UT Austin professor of molecular biosciences who led the study, said this may provide new insights into how to modulate immune responses and treat microbial infections.

“We think we may be on the trail of an entirely new mechanism for stimulating cytokine secretion,” said Huibregtse, “and that this might have implications for a wide variety of infectious diseases.”

Read the paper: Extracellular ISG15 Signals Cytokine Secretion through the LFA-1 Integrin Receptor

Fall 2017 Letter from the Chair

What better example is there of how “What Starts Here Changes the World” than the legacy of our UT Austin alumni? This fall, the College of Natural Sciences inducted into its Hall of Honor alumna Gail Dianne Lewis, who has done life-saving research with Genentech to produce effective new treatments for patients with the aggressive HER2-positive form of breast cancer. Another alum, celebrated immunotherapy pioneer Dr. James Allison, made TIME magazine’s list of the world’s most influential people and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts & Sciences this year. Capping it all, the 2017 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was recently shared by our alum Michael Young for discovering the molecular circuits underlying circadian rhythms.

A revolution in human health is coming about not only because of our alumni, but through ongoing efforts at The University of Texas at Austin. The groundbreaking work our researchers are doing, increasingly in coordination with faculty in the Dell Medical School, is ushering in a new era of biomedical research and education on campus. You’ll find evidence of it with our outstanding new faculty members, our exciting new cryo-electron microscopy facility, and our remarkable graduate students and undergraduates. Your support for the outstanding research and amazing people in our Texas Molecular Biosciences community ensures that the “What Starts Here…” legacy continues for generations to come. More news from the Department is here and on the College website. Please consider a gift to help support our work.

Daniel Leahy
Chair, Department of Molecular Biosciences

 

New MBS Faculty Member Receives Etter Early Career Award

mclellanJason McLellan, future associate professor in the Department of Molecular Biosciences, has received the Etter Early Career Award from the American Crystallographic Association.

The Etter Early Career award, which was established in 2002, seeks to recognize outstanding achievement and exceptional potential in crystallographic research demonstrated by a scientist at an early stage of their independent career.

McLellan’s research focuses on applying structural information to the rational design of interventions for viruses, specifically the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly every child in the US catches RSV, a virus that infects the lungs and respiratory tract, by the age of two.

He has been working to develop a monoclonal antibody, a type of antibody that targets only one specific protein, which could act as a vaccine surrogate to prevent severe RSV in infants.

McLellan, who is currently an assistant professor at Dartmouth College, will join the UT Austin faculty in January 2018.

Jonghwan Kim Receives Grant to Study Preterm Births

The Burroughs Wellcome Fund has awarded Jonghwan Kim, an assistant professor in the Department of Molecular Biosciences at The University of Texas at Austin, a four-year, $600,000 grant to study the biological complexities of preterm birth.

Surprisingly, little is known about the biological mechanisms that occur during birth.  Even less is known about what causes preterm birth.  Defined as babies born before 37 weeks, preterm birth occurs in nearly 13 percent of all U.S births, with African-Americans and Hispanics having an even higher rate.

Preterm Birth is a major public health problem. Many preterm births lead to long-term health problems and developmental difficulties. There are also the sociological issues of families going bankrupt and marriages dissolving.

Kim’s research project is titled “Identifying genetic factors controlling normal and abnormal placental development.”

Burroughs Wellcome Fund’s ultimate goal is to help develop preventive strategies by enabling interdisciplinary teams to collaborate in learning more about preterm birth.

Fall 2016 Letter from the Chair

Dear Friends of UT Molecular Biosciences,​

This fall, UT Austin welcomed its largest incoming class to date, and we are excited to have many of these new Longhorns in the Department of Molecular Biosciences. We welcomed a new faculty member who has done groundbreaking research in CRISPR gene-editing and are preparing a new research facility that allows scientists to see the inner workings of cells at higher resolution than ever before. We also are celebrating Professor John Wallingford's election as president of the Society for Developmental Biology and the achievements of our alumnus, Dr. Jim Allison, who The New York Times featured prominently for his leadership in immunotherapy cancer treatment. We are thankful for your continued support. You're essential in making UT Austin a science education leader and a hub for discovery and innovation that changes the world.


Dan Leahy
Chair, Department of Molecular Biosciences

P.S. Giving from alumni, parents, and friends allows us to pursue strategic initiatives and to support our faculty and students in their education and research endeavors. Please consider making a gift to UT Molecular Biosciences today.

Wallingford Elected President Society for Developmental Biology

Professor John Wallingford of the Department of Molecular Biosciences has been elected president of the Society for Developmental Biology. The Society, a non-profit, has nearly 2,000 members and provides an international forum for research, education and career development in developmental biology.

Through his work, Wallingford seeks to integrate systems biology and bioinformatics with novel strategies for in vivo imaging. The ultimate aim of his research is understanding the cause of human developmental disorders.

Wallingford began his career in developmental biology as an undergraduate at Wesleyan University, and continued as a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas at Austin. His postdoctoral research occurred jointly at the University of California, Berkeley and Caltech, where he launched a research program seeking to understand how cellular form and function arise in developing embryos. Since returning to the University of Texas at Austin as a faculty member, his research has integrated systems biology and bioinformatics; its ultimate aim is to understand the causes of human developmental disorders.

Professor Wallingford has received numerous teaching awards, as well as an Early Career Scientist Award from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, an Early Investigator Award from the American Asthma Foundation and a Career Award in the Biomedical Sciences from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.

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MBS-graduation-flickrMBS Graduates 2014

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