Research conducted by two recent Colorado College alumni in collaboration with Associate Professor of Molecular Biology Darrell Killian and other collaborators, including those at the University of Colorado –Colorado Springs, has been published in the journal Developmental Biology.
The article, “Shep interacts with posttranscriptional regulators to control dendrite morphogenesis in sensory neurons,” is based on research conducted by Killian and two of his former students, Katherine Miller ’17 and Samuel Mathai ’18, as well Simona Antonacci and Amber Marean, both former lab technicians in CC’s Department of Molecular Biology. Associate Professor Eugenia Olesnicky (corresponding author) and Assistant Professor Meghan Lybecker, both with UCCS’s Department of Biology, three UCCS students, and a collaborator in Austria also were part of the collaborative research project.
The work stems from a collaborative $677,091 National Science Foundation grant that the husband-and-wife team of Killian and Olesnicky received in 2013. They’re interested in learning how genes influence the development of the nervous system, and their research focuses on genes that encode RNA-binding proteins, which they hypothesize are important for regulating neuron development. The funding allowed them to research how genes control the morphology, or shape of neurons.
“The shape of a neuron is very important for its function,” says Killian. “The neurons in patients with neurological disorders, such as autism and schizophrenia, often show aberrant morphology. Neurons have thin branches called dendrites, which receive information, and axons, which send information. One gene that we found important for proper dendrite morphology is called SUP-26 in C. elegans (a worm) and Shep in Drosophila (fruit fly). By studying how this gene works in evolutionarily distant animals such as flies and worms, we can extrapolate how it works in humans because humans have a version of this gene as well.” Killian notes that their recent study shows that SUP-26/Shep regulates many other genes, many of which have previously been implicated in neuron function.
Colorado College researcher Miller, who graduated with a degree in neuroscience, currently is a post-baccalaureate fellow at the National Institutes of Health in the Mood Brain and Development Unit and is applying to Ph.D. programs in clinical psychology. Mathai, a molecular biology major (and a CC lacrosse player — 16 goals in 51 games), is a medical assistant at Vanguard Skin Care in Colorado Springs and plans to apply to medical school next year.
“Our work provides a substantial contribution to the field of developmental neurobiology, as it is one of few studies that investigates the extent to which genes in different organisms share conserved functions in the developing nervous system,” says Killian. “This project took about four years, which is an incredibly long time for CC students to think about, considering how short a block is. I am very happy for Katie and Sam to see the work they did a few summers ago at CC come to fruition.”