Scialog: Collaborative Teams - 2016
Harvard University, Physics and Molecular Biology
Heteroplasmy: population dynamics of mitochondria in mammalian cells
Three scientists -- Moumia Das, Rochester Institute of Technology, Dan Needleman, Harvard University, and Douglass Weibel, University of Wisconsin, Madison -- have come together under an innovative research program in an attempt to probe important genetic mysteries inside living cells. Their focus is on mitochondria.
Mitochondria are organelles – tiny organs in a cell – that perform numerous functions such as providing energy, signaling various processes to begin or end, triggering cell differentiation, and initiating apoptosis, or celldeath. All eukaryotes, the type of cells that make up humans and animals, rely on mitochondria, which often come in multiple genetic varieties within a single cell. Theorized to have originated as bacteria that merged in a symbiotic relationship with other cells billions of years ago, mitochondria have their own genome (mtDNA), rather than taking molecular instructions from genetic material in the cell nucleus.
Das, Needleman and Weibel note that “most human cells have roughly 1,000 mitochondria that undergo fission and fusion in response to factors that are largely unknown.” Each researcher in the team has received a $50,000 Scialog Award to investigate mitochondrial “genome drifting” within human cells. They also hope to learn how cellular mtDNA composition alters mitochondrial function, and to begin to understand genome drifting’s impact on cellular physiology.
It’s a tall order, one with no guarantee of success; but if the team succeeds, their work may one day help to treat serious diseases. They note that alterations in mtDNA can have devastating consequences on cellular bioenergetics and are connected to a range of human health conditions, including: epilepsy, heart failure, Parkinson’s, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis.
Das, Needleman and Weibel are among more than 60 early career scientists participating in Scialog: Molecules Come to Life, a three-year program jointly sponsored by Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA) and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Additional funding has been provided by the Simons Foundation. Scialog supports research, intensive dialog and community building to address scientific challenges of global significance. Within each multi-year initiative, Scialog Fellows collaborate in high-risk discovery research on untested ideas and communicate their progress and form new collaborations in annual conferences.
Molecules Come to Life focuses on such questions as, what are the fundamental principles that make a collection of molecules within a cell produce behaviors that we associate with life? How do molecules combine and dynamically interact to form functional units in cells, and how do cells themselves interact to form more complex lifeforms?
The researchers formed their collaboration at a Scialog conference held earlier this year in Tucson, Arizona. There scientists from diverse fields of biology, physics and chemistry engaged in intensive discussions designed to produce creative ideas for innovative research.
“Scialog aims to encourage collaborations between theorists and experimentalists,” said RCSA Program Director Richard Wiener. “And, we encourage approaches that are driven by theory and coarse-grained modeling, that are testable by experiments.”