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Mutant Roundworms Might Shed Light on Causes of Ribosome Disorders

mutant c elegans700 2In a paper published in the journal Developmental Cell last month, researchers from The University of Texas at Austin gained insights into how tissues diversify during embryonic development. These initial findings may provide clues about the causes of ribosomopathies, human disorders involving ribosomes, the molecular machines within cells that produce proteins.

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).

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