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Department at Work

Aug 11, 2017

Deciphering potent DNA toxin's secrets

One of the most potent toxins known acts by welding the two strands of the famous double helix together in a unique fashion which foils the standard repair mechanisms cells use to protect their DNA. Members of Biological Sciences Eichman Lab have worked out the molecular details that explain how this bacterial toxin—yatakemycin (YTM)—prevents DNA replication. Their results, described in a paper published online July 24 by Nature Chemical Biology, explain YTM’s extraordinary toxicity and could be used to fine-tune the compound’s impressive antimicrobial and antifungal properties.

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Jul 13, 2017

Bryan Gitschlag awarded an NRSA grant for his work investigating mutant mtDNA

Bryan Gitschlag from the Patel lab has been awarded a NRSA grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences for his work investigating the mechanisms that regulate the inheritance of mutant mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). To address the question of how mutant mtDNA rise to sufficiently high levels within an individual to cause disease, Bryan uses genetic and molecular approaches to dissect the cellular mechanisms that govern the transmission of mutant mtDNA in the model species Caenorhabditis elegans. Bryan previously found that mutant mtDNA can propagate across generations by activating, and then paradoxically exploiting, physiological stress-response pathways that seek to alleviate the deleterious effects of the mtDNA. His ongoing work is aimed at identifying new cellular mechanisms that govern the propagation of disease-causing mutant mtDNA, specifically, using RNA-sequencing to identify genes that are activated in the presence of mutant mtDNA. Bryan is also investigating the relationship between energy metabolism and mitochondrial genetics by measuring changes in mutant mtDNA levels in animals grown under various metabolic conditions, such as the high-fat diet.

Jul 10, 2017

Decoding ants’ coat of many odors

Ants are covered with a “coat of many odors.” It’s a waxy layer that covers their bodies and is the source of the complex aromas that ants use to communicate. These odorant blends act like biochemical uniforms, identifying individual ants by caste, colony and species. In so doing it helps regulate the ants’ behavior, allowing them to navigate the sophisticated social systems that has made ants one of the most successful families of animals on Earth. For some time, scientists have recognized the crucial role these chemical signals play in ants’ lives, but now Biological Sciences' Lawrence Zwiebel and his collaborators are making major advances in deciphering the molecular genetics of ant olfaction. This deeper level of understanding may not only provide new insights into how ants, honeybees and other social insects create and manage complex societies but it may also provide insight into how other “more advanced” animals do so as well. At the same time, it could produce more effective methods for keeping ants out of the kitchen and off the picnic table.

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Jun 8, 2017

Professor Antonis Rokas, finalist for the Blavatnik National Award for Young Scientists

Antonis Rokas is one of 30 finalists picked from a pool of the most promising scientific researchers aged 42 years and younger at America’s top academic and research institutions. From this group “national laureates” will be chosen in three fields: physical sciences and engineering, life sciences, and chemistry. The final selection will be announced in late June and the research of the 2017 finalists and honorees from previous years will be featured at a symposium in July in New York City. The Blavatnik Awards were established in 2007 by the Blavatnik Family Foundation and are administered by the New York Academy of Sciences to recognize exceptional young researchers who will drive the next generation of innovation by answering today’s most complex and intriguing scientific questions. Rokas studies the DNA record to gain insight into the patterns and processes of evolution using both computational and experimental approaches. He is particularly interested in three major questions: How did human pregnancy evolve? What are the molecular foundations of the fungal lifestyle? How can we elucidate the tree of life?

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May 22, 2017

Elwood Mullins named Postdoc of the Year at VICC retreat

Elwood Mullins from the Eichman Lab was named Postdoc of the Year at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center's Annual Scientific Retreat held on May 4 at the Vanderbilt Student Life Center.

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Apr 26, 2017

New method for tapping vast plant pharmacopeia to make more effective drugs - Rokas Lab

Cocaine, nicotine, capsaicin. These are just three familiar examples of the hundreds of thousands of small molecules (also called specialized or secondary metabolites) that plants use as chemical ammunition to protect themselves from predation. Unfortunately, identifying the networks of genes that plants use to make these biologically active compounds, which are the source of many of the drugs that people use and abuse daily, has vexed scientists for years, hindering efforts to tap this vast pharmacopeia to produce new and improved therapeutics. Now, Vanderbilt University geneticists think they have come up with an effective and powerful new way for identifying these elusive gene networks, which typically consist of a handful to dozens of different genes, that may overcome this road block.

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Apr 26, 2017

Forget sponges: the earliest animals were marine jellies - Rokas Lab

For the last decade, zoologists have been battling over the question, “What was the oldest branch of the animal family tree?” Was it the sponges, as they had long thought, or was it a distinctly different set of creatures, the delicate marine predators called comb jellies? The answer to this question could have a major impact on scientists’ thinking about how the nervous system, digestive tract, and other basic organs in modern animals evolved.

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Apr 25, 2017

Wisecaver named Vanderbilt Postdoc of the Year

Biological Sciences postdoctoral scholar Jennifer Wisecaver from the Rokas lab has been named this year’s “Postdoc of the Year” by the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs for her exceptional scholarship. Kevin Kohl from the Bordenstein lab has been named runner up.

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Mar 21, 2017

New tool for combating mosquito-borne disease: insect parasite genes

The Bordenstein Lab together with researchers from Yale have identified the specific genes that allow the bacteria Wolbachia to hijack a host insect’s reproductive system. This discovery will potentially help researchers develop methods for controlling insect-borne diseases like dengue and Zika viruses.

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Jan 24, 2017

What Did Neanderthals Leave to Modern Humans? Some Surprises.

Geneticists tell us that somewhere between 1 and 5 percent of the genome of modern Europeans and Asians consists of DNA inherited from Neanderthals, our prehistoric cousins. At Vanderbilt University, John Anthony Capra, an evolutionary genomics professor, has been combining high-powered computation and a medical records databank to learn what a Neanderthal heritage — even a fractional one — might mean for people today.

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