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7 Students Co-Author Paper on Sensory Neurons

Lab Research Leads to Theses Presentations

A joint venture between the biology departments at Colorado College and the University of Colorado - Colorado Springs has resulted in the co-authoring of a paper titled "Conserved RNA-Binding Proteins Required for Dendrite Morphogenesis in Caenorhabditis elegans Sensory Neurons" that appears in the journal G3: Genes, Genomes, Genetics.

Seven Colorado College students and recent graduates are listed as co-authors, as well as an undergraduate and graduate student at UCCS. The CC students are part of Assistant Professor Darrell Killian's lab group in the Molecular Biology Department that is researching the development of neurons. Two of the participating students, Margaret Wolf '15 and Courtney Tyus '15, will present thesis projects on their parts in the research during Block 7.

The work was funded by a $677,091 National Science Foundation grant awarded jointly in 2013 to Killian's lab at CC and Assistant Biology Professor Eugenia Olesnicky's lab at UCCS, with the newly published paper being a result of that grant. "We examined more than 50 genes, thus several students contributed to the large-scale project," Killian said. CC students and recent alumni listed as authors on the paper are Genevieve Kerr '12, Kristen Wells '13, Leah Kellogg '13, Margo Simon '14, Margaret Wolf '15, Courtney Tyus '15, and Julia Barney '16. CC lab technician Simona Antonacci, Killian, and Olesnicky also are listed as authors, with Antonacci being first author. Adding to the regional scope of the collaboration is Nathan Mortimer, a visiting scientist at University of Denver's Biology Department, who helped with the bioinformatics on the project.

The researchers used the model organism, C. elegans, a worm, because it is hard to identify genes that regulate dendrites in humans directly. Dendrites are the branched structures of neurons that receive information from other cells or the environment. "Since neurons are present in much simpler animals, it is easier to study them in such animals - usually worms, flies, or mice - and then extrapolate findings to humans and look for corroborating information," Killian said. "In this case we found 12 genes that affect dendrites in worms and we know that humans have very similar genes in terms of the DNA sequence. This suggests that they have a similar function. Furthermore, our study looked at gene expression datasets in humans and found that the human versions of these genes are expressed in the human brain, which makes us more confident that these genes regulate dendrites in humans, too."

The research led by Killian and Olesnicky, who are married, has ramifications for disorders such as Alzheimer's disease, Down syndrome, and stress and anxiety.

"The hope is that a study like ours is a jumping off point for other labs to develop drugs for diseases with dendrite branching defects (Alzheimer's, autism, schizophrenia, etc). Or that the sequencing of these genes in humans can lead to better diagnostic tools for these diseases in humans. Before any of that happens, it is likely that studies will be done on these genes in mice first," Killian said.

Tyus, a molecular and cellular biology major from Thornton, Colorado, said the research in Killian's lab was a tremendously positive experience. "As a freshman, when you get into the introductory level biology classes, it can be very overwhelming and easy to lose the confidence you had in high school with academics," she said. "Doing research with Darrell gave me the confidence to take on science on the Block Plan. It also forces you to think very critically and puts you in the driver's seat with your learning. If I had to give one piece of advice to incoming students it would be to get involved in research as soon as possible." Tyus will work as a medical assistant for a year and a half at Partners in Pediatrics in Denver before applying to physician's assistant school.

"These experiences were great for learning techniques, but working in the lab taught me how to critically think about the science I was doing," said Wolf, a molecular and cellular biology major from Allentown, Pennsylvania, who plans on applying to medical school. "I had the opportunity to not only participate in raw science, but also to become involved in a meaningful project with real life applications," she said. "I am using this research to write my senior thesis, which is a rewarding culmination of the work I have done."

Wolf conducted research in the lab during the summer after her sophomore and junior years, and presented at the American Society for Cell Biology Conference in New Orleans her junior year. She also presented at CC at three Summer Undergraduate Research Symposiums.

"These opportunities have allowed me to develop as a science communicator, as it takes a lot of practice to explain two years of research in just 12 minutes," Wolf said. "This experience has not only helped me to grow personally as a scientist and a critical thinker, but has also set me up as a more competitive applicant for medical school."

"For me, it's all about the students," Killian said. "But, Simona (Antonacci) was a huge part of this story. In addition to performing experiments, she helped me train the students and coordinate their efforts, which was extremely helpful, particularly during my teaching blocks. Her work, and that of the students, was fantastic."

Report an issue - Last updated: 12/16/2020