News

Endangered wild relatives needed

February 7, 2020 - Wild plants evolve to survive the whims of nature and thrive in difficult conditions, including extreme climate conditions, poor soils, and pests and disease. It makes them tougher than their better-known descendants—the domesticated plants that are critical to a healthy diet who are not nearly as hardy. The genes that make crop wild relatives robust have the potential to make their cultivated cousins – our food plants - better prepared for a harsh climate future. But a series of new research papers show these critical plants are imperiled. Certain chile peppers, says SBS’s botanist Lynn Bohs, who with Khoury and others recently published new findings on the subject, have found themselves in one such imperiled grouping: “It is important to know the conservation status of the wild Capsicum species in order to prioritize regions for further collecting or habitat preservation so that these genetic resources are available for future crop improvement.” See D&D Article ...

Why males pack a powerful punch

February 6, 2020 - Elk have antlers. Rams have horns. In the animal kingdom, males develop specialized weapons for competition when winning a fight is critical. Humans do too, according to new research from the University of Utah. For years, SBS faculty member Dave Carrier has been exploring the hypothesis that generations of interpersonal male-male aggression long in the past have shaped structures in human bodies to specialize for success in fighting. Past work has shown that the proportions of the hand aren’t just for manual dexterity- they also protect the hand when it’s formed into a fist. Other studies looked at the strength of the bones of the face (as a likely target of a punch) and how our heels, planted on the ground, can confer additional upper body power. “One of the predictions that comes out of those,” Carrier says, “is if we are specialized for punching, you might expect males to be particularly strong in the muscles that are associated with throwing a punch.” See JEB Article ... See UNews Article ...

Biology Honors Student awarded Churchill Scholarship

January 30, 2020 - Michael Xiao of Los Angeles, CA, a senior honors student majoring in biology, is one of only 16 students nationally to receive the prestigious Churchill Scholarship this year to study at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. He is the fifth consecutive Churchill Scholar from the UofU.  Xiao, pronounced “show,” has aspirations as a physician-scientist and was a 2019 Barry M. Goldwater Scholar last year. He is currently a research assistant in the lab of Jared Rutter, an HHMI Investigator. Independently working on projects involving muscle stem cell differentiation and cancer metabolism. The Churchill Scholarship, established in 1963 at the request of Winston Churchill, provides undergraduates with outstanding academic achievement in the science, technology, engineering and math fields the opportunity to complete a one-year master’s program at the University of Cambridge. More on the Churchill Scholarship:  https://tinyurl.com/r6kvt6n

Biology Distinguished Alumni 2020

Rajesh “Tim” Gandhi MD (BS’86) practices medicine in Boston where he specializes in infectious diseases. He is Medical Director of the HIV clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Rajesh and his siblings grew up in Salt Lake City.

Monica Gandhi MD, MPH (BS’91) attended Harvard Medical School for her MD and is currently Professor of Medicine and Associate Chief of the Division of HIV, Infectious Disease, and Global Medicine at University of California, San Francisco. She also serves as Medical Director of Ward 86 HIV Clinic at San Francisco General Hospital. Monica was the convocation speaker for the College of Science in May 2019.

Leena Gandhi MD, PhD (BS’92) is VP, Immuno-Oncology Development at Lilly Pharma in New York City where she leads clinical development while overseeing a team of six clinical research physicians. While at the School of Biological Sciences she worked in Ted and Tucker Gurney’s lab doing research in cell biology. Read more

Jeanne Novak, PhD (BS'81) is the founder and CEO of CBR International, a full-service biopharmaceutical product, clinical, medical device and regulatory development and compliance group in Boulder, Colorado.  Read more

Julia Bailey-Serres, PhD (BS’81), is Director at the Center for Plant Cell Biology and Distinguished Professor of Genetics at the University of California, Riverside. A California native, Bailey-Serres was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2016.  Read more.

Capturing real-time movement of molecules in 3d

January 24, 2020 - For years, scientists at the University of Utah wished there was a way to visualize how the HIV virus and its molecules interact with human cells in real time. So, a research group developed one.  The new method uses interferometry to capture extremely high-resolution visualizations of millions of molecules moving across viscous gels or a plasma membrane. Ipsita Saha, physics doctoral candidate and lead author of the study, developed a correlation analysis that theoretically explained how the interferometry microscope could distinguish between two types of movement—flow and diffusion—and she and Senior Author Saveez Saffarian verified it experimentally. Saffarian is associate professor of physics, adjunct assistant professor of biology. Both are affiliates of the Center for Cell and Genome Science (CCGS) at the U.  https://ccgs.utah.edu/  The method brings us one step closer to visualizing how molecules interact in an actual living cell.  “So far, we’ve been left to just imagine these interactions. We have very limited ways of actually going into the cell and observing how all of these molecules are dancing together at the same time,” says Saffarian. “We really needed to generate higher-resolution methods that can look at the dynamics of biological molecules.” The study published in the journal PLOS ONE in December 2019. See Article ...

Discovery to help design cancer drugs

January 6, 2020 - In a new paper, Associate Professor Martin Horvathet al, indicates that while DNA damage is inevitable, there are repair enzymes like MutY that find and remove the damage before it becomes a bigger problem leading to cancer, especially in the colon. It does this by preventing mutations in DNA by finding OG:A basepairs and removing the A base. “Our work,” says Horvath who is on faculty at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Utah, “shows that the central mission of finding OG:A basepairs in an ocean of normal DNA relies on a 3-residue loop in one domain of MutY.” These 3 residues are well conserved through evolution and spell FiSH (the i is not really part of the loop, but makes for an easy-to-remember word). The central S (Ser) residue in the study, for example, changed its position when damaged OG was replaced by normal G, as revealed by X-ray crystallography, the science that determines the atomic and molecular structure of a protein. “When we made changes to two or more of these FiSH residues, mutation rates increased in cells, and MutY bound to DNA more weakly, removed A from OG:A basepairs more slowly, and failed to tell apart OG:A (authentic substrate) and G:A (off-target decoy).” The importance of these discoveries is that they can guide the design of cancer cell-killing drugs. See Article ...

OUR DNA latest issue

December 6, 2019 - Hot off the Press! OUR DNA is a dynamic 360-degree snapshot of both the depth and breadth of the people, the research and the outreach that make up one of the University of Utah's most celebrated academic units. In both print and digital formats, the latest issue (Fall 2019) features stories about faculty members CRISPR-wielding James (Jamie) Gagnon, “Ant Man” John (Jack) Longino, our newest faculty member Dean Castillo and botanist plant water transport specialist John Sperry (who is retiring this year). A profile of alumnus Dr. Nikhil Bhayani (BS’98) takes a bow along with other alumni updates from basketball-player-turned-doctor (Larry Cain BS’93) to Sue Phillips (MS’96) the U.S. Geological Survey’s new director of the FRESC center in Oregon.  Undergraduate research students like Bridget Phillips (Shapiro lab) get a plug as does the remarkable story about the Colin Dale Lab’s project of firebugs collected by citizen scientist 2nd graders. Pick up your copy today or see the full magazine online at Our DNA Fall 2019

John S. Parkinson honored as AAAS Fellow

December 9, 2019 - John S. Parkinson was one of two fellows from the University of Utah named to the Council of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for “distinguished contributions to the field of molecular microbiology, particularly using genetic and in vivo analyses to study bacterial chemotaxis, behavior and signal transduction.” “My election as AAAS Fellow is, indeed, a greatly appreciated honor,” says Parkinson. “I believe that it recognizes the nearly 50 years of research by my group at the U into the molecular signaling mechanisms that bacteria have evolved to detect and respond adaptively to environmental changes. Since my arrival at the U in 1972, my lab’s research has been funded by NIH grants, the first of which is now in its 46th year of continuous support. We’ve exploited the chemotaxis behavior of E. coli as an experimental model to study chemoreception and signal transduction mechanisms of transmembrane chemoreceptor proteins.  We’ve discovered mechanisms and general principles never imagined at the outset of our work.  Yet, there are signaling mysteries still unsolved. My group hopes to learn more molecular answers in the years to come.”

Most influential researchers

November 29, 2019 - Since 2002, the Highly Cited Researchers list has identified global research scientists and social scientists who have demonstrated exceptional influence – reflected through their publication of multiple papers frequently cited by their peers during the last decade. Congratulations to John Sperry and William “Bill” Anderegg who made this prestigious list this year.

Treetop Barbie

September 23, 2019 - When Nalini Nadkarni was a young scientist in the 1980s, she wanted to study the canopy – the part of the trees just above the forest floor to the very top branches.  But back then, people hadn't figured out a good way to easily reach the canopy so it was difficult to conduct research in the tree tops. And Nadkarni's graduate school advisors didn't really think studying the canopy was worthwhile.   During Nadkarni's early work as an ecologist she began to realize something else: There weren't many women conducting canopy research.  Nadkarni was determined to change this. In the early 2000s, she and her lab colleagues came up with the idea of TreeTop Barbie, a canopy researcher version of the popular Barbie doll that could be marketed to young girls. NPR Interview ...

Biology professor Longino Mapping diversity

September 4, 2019 - “You can think of what I do as making a map of diversity,” says entomologist and professor at the School of Biological Sciences John “Jack” Longino. “The first step in understanding and using animals and plants is having a map of what we've got. I've dedicated my career to filling in the map.” That map is about to get a lot more detailed now that the National Science Foundation has awarded Longino and his collaborators a $1.3 million grant for “Ants of the World.” The project is designed to obtain genetic information from 4,500 species of ants around the world. Recently, Longino compiled decades of his work into a monograph, detailing 234 species of the ant genus Pheidole. He’s given names to 57 of those species himself. Longino formatted the monograph to emulate a bird guide, hoping to engage more ant fans in the work of documenting and conserving ant species. Now with his collaborators at Univ. California, Davis; California Academy of Sciences; and North Carolina State University, he is poised to construct a comprehensive evolutionary tree of life for his favorite insect family: ants.

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