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CC Alumna Elected to National Academy of Sciences

Brenda Bass ’77 honored for double-stranded RNA research

One of the highest honors in science recently was bestowed on Brenda Bass '77. Bass, who holds the H.A. and Edna Benning Endowed Chair in Biochemistry at the University of Utah School of Medicine, has been named to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. The National Academies recognize achievements in their fields and, with National Research Council, advises the federal government and other organizations about science, engineering, and health policy.

Bass graduated from Colorado College with a degree in chemistry and feels strongly that her CC education led to her love of research. "I loved the Block Plan since it allowed long hours in the lab," she said. "I have memories of professors adding an unknown component to my experiment and demanding that I figure out what they had added by evaluating the reaction products. I just loved the puzzle of it all."

Bass has devoted her career to understanding the role of double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) molecules in the cell. Research in her lab at the University of Utah focuses on the biological functions of dsRNA and the proteins that bind dsRNA. The human body makes dsRNAs that serve a number of functions, but viruses also make the molecules, which potentially can cause problems if the body is confused about when to mount an immune response to fight infections. Bass believes that sometimes dsRNA encoded within human and animal genomes binds with particular proteins to signal environmental and metabolic stress even without a virus being present, and her laboratory is testing this idea. Work in her laboratory involves a constant interplay between in vitro and in vivo studies, and for the latter she uses the model organism C. elegans, cultured mammalian cells, and mice.

Bass earned her Ph.D. at the University of Colorado, where she worked in the lab of Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Thomas Cech, who discussed "RNA: Ribozymes, Telomerase, Aging, and Cancer" at Colorado College earlier this month. Cech discovered ribozymes, the RNA molecules that catalyze chemical reactions in cells. While in Cech's lab, Bass made the important discovery that the process that ribozymes use to catalyze chemical reactions is quite similar to the process that protein enzymes use for that purpose. The pioneering work laid the foundation for research that many labs continue to this day.

At the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, working as a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of another internationally regarded researcher, the late Harold Weintraub, Bass discovered an entire new class of enzymes, called ADARs. Those enzymes target regions of messenger RNA (mRNA) and change the information they carry, contributing to the spectacular diversity required for a functioning nervous system, in particular learning and memory.

In 2011, she received a $2.5 million National Institutes of Health Director's Pioneer Award, one of the institute's highest honors, to study the process that regulates the dsRNA-based "SOS" signal for stress. If her hypothesis proves true, it opens the door for potential new drugs to treat the inflammatory component of many diseases.

Bass is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and in 2010 received the University of Utah's Distinguished Scholarly and Creative Research Award.

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