News & Announcements

What Brain-eating Amoebae Can Tell Us About the Diversity of Life on Earth and Evolutionary History

image of Naegleria gruberi cells

An international team of researchers, including Katrina Velle, Lillian Fritz-Laylin and Patricia Wadsworth, recently announced in the journal Current Biology that an amoeba called Naegleria has evolved more distinct sets of tubulins, used for specific cellular processes, than previously thought. Their insight has a host of implications, which range from developing treatments for brain-eating infections to better understanding how life on earth evolved such enormous diversity.

Much of life on earth relies on a series of polymers called microtubules, composed of tubulin, to complete a wide range of tasks inside their cells. These microtubules are like the 2x4s of the cell and are used in everything from helping the cell to move, to transporting food and waste within the cell and giving the cell structural support.

Biologists had previously known that Naegleria uses a specific kind of tubulin during mitosis. But the new study, led by Katrina Velle, a postdoc in biology at UMass Amherst and the paper’s lead author, shows that Naegleria also employs three additional distinct tubulins specifically during mitosis. One pair of tubulins are used only during mitosis, while the other, the flagellate tubulin, specialize in cellular movement. The authors of the study then compared the tubulins and the structures they build to each other and those of more commonly studied species.

The research has been supported by a prominent, international set of institutions, including the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health, the Smith Family Foundation Award for Excellence in Biomedical Science, the National Science Foundation, the Croatian Science Foundation, the European Research Council, the European Regional Development Fund—the Competitiveness and Cohesion Operational Programme: QuantiXLie Center of Excellence and IPSted, as well as the Robert A. Welch Foundation. Read more


UMass Amherst Research Advances Knowledge of the Battle Between Viruses and Human Cells

photo of Daniel MacVeigh-Fierro

In the long-term battle between a herpesvirus and its human host, a University of Massachusetts Amherst virologist and her team of students have identified some human RNA able to resist the viral takeover – and the mechanism by which that occurs.

This discovery, described in a paper published Feb. 17 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, represents an important step in the effort to develop anti-viral drugs to fight off infections.

“This paper is about trying to understand the mechanism that makes these RNA escape degradation,” says senior author Mandy Muller, assistant professor of microbiology. “The next step is to figure out if we can manipulate this to our advantage.”

How and why some RNA are able to escape the viral degradation are questions Muller’s team – including lead author and graduate student Daniel Macveigh-Fierro and co-authors and undergraduates Angelina Cicerchia, Ashley Cadorette and Vasudha Sharma – has been investigating. The research was supported by a $1.9 million Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) to Muller in 2020 from the NIH’s National Institute for General Medical Sciences. Read more

$2.8 million NIH Grant Funds Research Into Fatal Movement Disorders

photo of Amanda Woerman

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Creighton University in Omaha have received a five-year, $2.8 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to study the molecular mechanisms underlying multiple system atrophy (MSA), one in a group of fatal neurodegenerative movement disorders.

The research by lead investigator Amanda Woerman, assistant professor of biology in the UMass Amherst College of Natural Sciences, and Jason Bartz, professor and chair of medical microbiology and immunology at Creighton University, may also advance understanding of the biochemical roots of Parkinson’s disease and other synucleinopathies, which affect more than 6.8 million Americans.

In her years of research into the complexities of MSA, Woerman remains driven by the hope that her work will help lead to treatments.

“As a scientist, you have to be studying something that you find incredibly compelling,” she says. “I really can’t think of anything that I care more about in science than trying to alleviate the suffering that these patients and their families are going through.” Read more

Neurobiologist Collaborates in Research to Develop New Treatment Technology for Alzheimer’s Disease

photo of Jenny Rauch

Jennifer Rauch, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, is collaborating on a two-year, $700,000 National Institutes of Health grant to develop a new technology to treat Alzheimer’s disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy and other neurodegenerative diseases.

Rauch will be working with grant recipient Novoron Bioscience, a San Diego-based biotechnology company that seeks to develop therapies to reverse central nervous system damage, and Kenneth Kosik of the University of California, Santa Barbara, in whose neurobiology lab Rauch conducted research as a post-doc.

Based at the Institute for Applied Life Sciences, whose mission is to translate science into technologies and services that benefit human health and well-being, the Rauch Lab focuses on the neurodegenerative protein tau, which aggregates in neurofibrillary tangles that are correlated with cognitive decline. With the NIH funding, Novoron will test new technology aimed at reducing the spread of tau by targeting LRP1, a cellular receptor for tau.

Rauch was the first author of a paper published in Nature that described the discovery of the central role of LRP1 in tauopathy. By targeting the molecule that regulates the transport and spread of tau within the brain, Novoron hopes to develop a novel, effective  approach to treat Alzheimer’s disease, which affects some 25 million people worldwide, and other tauopathies. Read more

Timme-Laragy Lab Members Receive NESOT Awards

Doctoral student Madeline Tompach and postdoctoral research associate Emily Marques claimed top prizes at the annual meeting of the Northeast Chapter of the Society of Toxicology (NESOT) held virtually Dec. 1-3, 2021. They are both members of Associate Professor Alicia Timme-Laragy’s lab in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences.

MCB graduate student Tompach received the Graduate Student Oral Presentation Award, which includes a $1000 prize, for her presentation “Examining PFOS-induced Dyslipidemia and use of α-lipoic acid (ALA) as a Potential Mitigation Strategy in Zebrafish (Danio rerio).” Her research focuses on exposure to the pollutant PFOS which has been demonstrated to alter lipid profiles and stunt embryonic growth. She demonstrated that maternal consumption of the dietary supplement alpha lipoic acid (ALA) partially rescued the detrimental changes in embryonic growth caused by PFOS. Read more

Two UMass Amherst Professors Elected as Fellows to the American Association for the Advancement of Science

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the preeminent scientific institution in the United States, the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the Science family of journals, has elected two professors from the University of Massachusetts Amherst to the newest class of AAAS Fellows, among the most prestigious honors bestowed by the scientific community.

Tricia Serio, associate chancellor for strategic academic planning, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and Lynmarie Thompson, director of the Chemistry-Biology Interface Program and professor in the Department of Chemistry, will join 562 other scientists, engineers and innovators from 24 scientific disciplines in this year’s class of AAAS Fellows.

Serio’s research is focused on a particular set of cellular proteins, called “prions,” that can change their shape. When their shape changes, so does their function within the cell, and sometimes these shape-shifting proteins can cause serious illness, such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. “What we want to understand,” says Serio, “is why proteins change their shape, and if they can switch in one direction, causing disease, can they switch back to a healthy state?”

Thompson also studies cellular proteins, though the focus of her work is on proteins in the membrane of a cell. Membrane proteins are responsible for many of the cell’s processes, from harnessing energy to communicating with other cells and sensing the environment. Her lab investigates chemotaxis receptors that sense the environment and can direct the swimming of bacteria, and form protein arrays in the membrane that are “symmetrical and beautifully complex,” as Thompson puts it. Membrane proteins are also the targets for a wide range of therapeutic drugs—and yet their structures and mechanisms remain poorly understood.

Serio and Thompson, both of whom are members of the graduate program in molecular and cellular biology at UMass, are also supported by the facilities and intellectual camaraderie of the UMass Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS), which combines deep and interdisciplinary expertise from 29 departments on the UMass Amherst campus to translate fundamental research into innovations that benefit human health and well-being. Read more

Liu Named Chair-elect of the American Society for Nutrition Diet and Cancer Section

photo of Zhenhua Liu

Associate Professor of Nutrition Zhenhua Liu has been elected to serve as chair-elect of the diet and cancer research interest section (RIS) of the American Society for Nutrition (ASN). He will serve in this role through the end of June before taking over the position of chair for a one-year term from July 2022 to June 2023.

Members of the ASN Diet and Cancer RIS focus on the impact of nutritional status and dietary factors in cancer development; the role of diet in modulating cellular, biochemical and molecular events associated with carcinogenesis at numerous sites in animal and human models; and the relevance and application of research in the field of cancer chemoprevention.

“It is my great honor to serve for the ASN Diet and Cancer RIS, which is dedicated to bringing together the world’s top researchers, clinical nutritionists, and industry partners to advance our knowledge and application of nutrition for cancer prevention and thereby to reduce the burden of cancer in our society,” says Liu. Read more

$2 Million NIH MIRA Grant Will Support Trailblazing Research in UMass Amherst Lab

photo of Jianhan Chen

Jianhan Chen, a University of Massachusetts Amherst chemistry and biochemistry and molecular biology professor, has received a five-year, $2 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to support research in his computational biophysics lab aimed at better understanding the role of intrinsically disordered proteins (IDPs) in biology and human disease.

The grant falls under the National Institute of General Medical Sciences MIRA program, which stands for Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award. It’s designed to give highly talented researchers more flexibility and stability to achieve important scientific advances in their labs.

“The MIRA award enables us to continue working on several central problems regarding the study of disordered proteins and dynamic interactions. The flexibility of this funding mechanism also allows us to follow new research directions as they emerge,” Chen says. Read more

UMass Amherst Faculty Members Receive Acorn Innovation Grants

photo of Sloan Siegrist

Sloan Siegrist was one of three faculty who received Acorn Innovation grants of $16,250 each to help them test the viability of their innovations and potentially bring them closer to market.

The Acorn Awards are funded by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and overseen by MassVentures, the state’s strategic venture capital arm. 

Sloan Siegrist, associate professor the department of microbiolgy, received the grant for her platform technology that uses universal cell surface labelling to rapidly detect bacterial growth and antibiotic susceptibility. Read more

MCB and Graduate Biological Science Programs at UMass Receive High Rankings

graphic of US News and World Report

According to the most recent US News & World Report, MCB and Graduate Biological Science Programs at UMass Amherst are ranked #2 among public universities in New England. In addition, the UMass Graduate Biological Science Programs are ranked #26 in public schools, and #54 overall based on a survey of academics at peer institutions. Read more