News & Announcements

Li-Jun Ma Receives Joint Genome Institute Award for Fungi Research

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Professor Li-Jun Ma, biochemistry and molecular biology, has received support from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute (JGI) Community Science Program (CSP) to conduct in-depth research on a group of soil fungi, Fusaria, that are economically important because they devastate crops – not only food but biofuel feedstocks. This is a collaborative project between principal investigator Ma and co-principal investigator Robert Proctor, a research microbiologist at the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s National Center for Agricultural Utilization.

Ma says that two of the top 10 plant pathogens are in the Fusarium family, based on a ranking by many molecular plant pathologists. For these new investigations, she will collaborate with Igor Grigoriev and his team at the Joint Genome Institute and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Other collaborators include evolutionary biologist David Geiser, director of the Fusarium Research Center at Penn State University; Kerry O’Donnell, an expert on taxonomy and biological diversity of Fusarium; and Daren Brown, who has more than 20 years of experience in Fusarium research. Read more

Microbiologist Mandy Muller Receives NIH Grant to Advance Anti-viral Strategies

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Virologist Mandy Muller, microbiology, recently received a five-year, $1.9 million Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) grant from the NIH’s National Institute for General Medical Sciences to continue her advanced studies into how certain viruses, such as those in the Herpes family and those that cause Kaposi’s sarcoma in immune-compromised individuals, evade the body’s immune response by hiding, undetectable, deep in tissues for decades.

Muller’s lab is trying to detect these viruses earlier than ever before, as soon as the onset of infection, before they can hijack immune pathways and before they can hide. She has been working on the same Kaposi's Sarcoma Associated Herpes virus that she started studying as an undergraduate in her native France – and there is still much to learn, she says. Read more

John Gibbons Receives NSF CAREER Grant for Fungi Research

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You can’t herd them, you can’t put two in a corral and hope they will breed to produce offspring with desirable traits, but the humans of 10,000 to 13,000 years ago figured out how to domesticate molds and other fungi to preserve food, make it tastier and to make wine.

How this happened is “the big question,” says John Gibbons, food science, who this month begins the search for Fungal Domestication Syndrome, supported by a five-year, $729,900 National Science Foundation faculty early development (CAREER) grant. “Almost everything we know about domestication stems from plant and animal models,” Gibbons says. “But fungi have very different underlying population biology and ecology.” His studies will advance knowledge of the effects of fungi domestication and related genomic and evolutionary processes. Read more

Heuck’s Lab Honored with NIH Small Business Technology Transfer Award

photo of Alejandro Heuck

Associate professor Alejandro Heuck’s biochemistry lab, in collaboration with Worcester-based Microbiotix, Inc., has been awarded a two-year, $600,000 NIH Small Business Technology Transfer award to develop a high-throughput screening method to identify inhibitors of a bacterial secretion system that attacks human cells by injecting toxins. A treatment based on the inhibitors could act by a new mechanism to enhance the host’s innate immune response to infection, Heuck says. 

His co-principal investigator on the project is Donald Moir, chief scientific officer at Microbiotix, who has many years of experience in anti-infective drug discovery and inhibitors of Type 3-mediated secretion. Heuck himself is an expert in Type 3 secretion-mediated translocation, the assembly of the translocon and its function. Read more

Timme-Laragy Named Member of NIH Cancer Etiology Study Section

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Alicia Timme-Laragy, associate professor of environmental health sciences, has been selected to serve as a member of the Cancer Etiology Study Section for the Center for Scientific Review at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The Cancer Etiology Study Section reviews grant applications related to the causal agents, processes, and cells involved in early events in carcinogenesis. Focus areas include the role of DNA damage, DNA replication stress and DNA repair defects in carcinogenesis. Focus areas include the role of DNA damage, DNA replication stress and DNA repair defects in carcinogenesis. Read more

Mass Life Sciences Awards $2 Million in Capital Funds to IALS Research

The Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC) this week announced an award of $2 million in capital grants to be shared by four of the campus’s Core Facilities managed by the Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS). The funds are for the purchase of hardware and software, analytical and other equipment, as well as research supplies and reagents.

IALS Core Facilities receiving the support are:

  • Light Microscopy, directed by James Chambers, for the enhancement of the UMass Amherst Light Microscopy Facility for cutting-edge workforce training.
  • Flow Cytometry, directed by Amy Burnside, to update cell sorter, spectral analyzer cytometer, and high throughput sampler.
  • Mass Spectrometry, directed by Steve Eyles, for the acquisition of Synapt G2-32k Mass Spectrometer for native mass spectrometry.
  • Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR), directed by Jasna Fejzo, for the purchase of a SampleJet, a high-throughput sample changing robot for NMR.
  • Center for Human Health and Performance, directed by Michael Busa, plus industry partner Embr, for “Artificial Intelligence for Menopause Symptoms (AIMS).”

Read more

#BlackInSTEM: Thriving in the Sciences for Students of Color

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CNS partnered with the Colleges of Engineering and Computer and Information Sciences to host a virtual #BlackInSTEM panel, in which nearly 150 people participated. 

In this great time of uncertainty, there are also opportunities for a better tomorrow. The global pandemic and national awakening to racial violence has challenged us to consider our relationship to each other, our institutions, and established academic and social structures. #BlackInSTEM at UMass contributes to this conversation by providing a forum for Black and non-Black students or alumni of color to connect with and hear from Black faculty, postdoctoral researchers, and graduate students as they navigate careers in higher education.

Gerald B. Downes, PhD, Associate Professor of Biology
Brittany Johnson, PhD, Postdoctoral Researcher, College of Information & Computer Sciences
Shannon Roberts, PhD, Assistant Professor, Mechanical & Industrial Engineering
Wilmore Webley, PhD, Associate Professor, Microbiology; Director, Pre-Med Advising


Saman Nayyab Receives Fellowship from the Male Contraceptive Initiative (MCI)

photo of Saman Nayyab

Saman Nayyab was appointed as a 2020 Research Fellow by the Male Contraceptive Initiative (MCI), a private non-profit foundation whose objective is to advocate for and promote the development of reversible non-hormonal male contraception. MCI Fellows will each receive $100,000 over the next two years to support their research. The support provided to MCI Fellows allows them to focus on the research, publish data, and build the background they need to sustain a long career as an investigator. 

Saman is a PhD candidate in Dr. Pablo Visconti’s lab studying the role of testis specific serine kinases (TSSKs) on male fertility. TSSKs are kinases present in both germ cells and mature sperm, leading to the hypothesis that they are essential for sperm differentiation and maturation. This MCI fellowship allows Saman to learn advanced instrumental techniques and develop impressive collaborations to target TSSKs as novel male contraceptives. Congratulations on this prestigious award, Saman! Read more

Food scientist receives a $434,215 grant from the USDA to develop a solution for cleaning peanut butter off food processing equipment 

photo of Lynne McLandsborough

From home bakers to commercial food producers, everyone knows that cleaning peanut butter off utensils and out of bowls is a tricky, sticky proposition. That’s because of the high-fat content of peanuts and the chemical reality that water and oil don’t mix. 

To address the more serious implications, University of Massachusetts Amherst food scientist Lynne McLandsborough has received a $434,215 grant from the USDA to develop an oil-based system to clean and sanitize food processing equipment without water, reducing the high risk for Salmonella contamination associated with nuts. Read more

Study Shows Detailed Molecular Workings of a Key System in Learning and Memory Formation

photo of Meg Stratton

One of the new realities in biomedical research is that it’s increasingly difficult to use a general approach to score advances. Now, investigations into disease mechanisms, for example, are often conducted at the molecular level by specialists who dedicate years to interrogating a single protein or signaling pathway.

One such scientist is biochemist Margaret Stratton at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, whose lab reports how they used advanced sequencing technology to clear up uncertainty and determine all variants of a single protein/enzyme known as calcium/calmodulin-dependent protein kinase II (CaMKII) in the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center.

Stratton and first authors Roman Sloutsky and Noelle Dziedzic, with others, report in Science Signaling that they found an unexpected new role for the hub domain, or organizational center of the CaMKII molecular complex. Stratton says, “In addition to this known role, we show that this domain affects how sensitive CaMKII is to calcium; it acts like a tuner for sensitivity. This was a surprise. It opens a whole new area for investigation. We also show evidence for how we think it works at the molecular level.” Read more