Dr. Tara Allen, professor of biology and department chair
Vascular smooth muscle (VSM) is the principle cell type in the walls of arteries where they mediated changes in, and maintenance of, blood flow and pressure. The model system for our laboratory is VSM cells from rat thoracic aorta, which we grow in our cell culture facility. Our research focuses on atherosclerosis, one of the leading causes of mortality in the US. Atherosclerosis results in a narrowing of the space in which blood can flow through the artery. This obstruction occurs due to a build-up of plaque, consisting of cells, proteins and lipids, in the vessel lumen.
VSM cells contribute to atherosclerotic plaque formation by migrating out of their normal position in the vessel wall, proliferating, and synthesizing extracellular proteins. While the role of VSM cells in the atherosclerotic plaque may seem unfavorable, VSM cells also contribute to the stability of the plaque as they synthesize proteins that strengthen the plaque and prevent its rupture. While it is not optimal to have a plaque, most humans have them to some extent, and it is best if they are stable. So, loss of VSM cells in the plaque, such as would occur as a result of apoptosis, or programmed cell death, could contribute to plaque instability and increase the likelihood of embolus formation. This embolus could then travel through the bloodstream to obstruct blood flow in other, smaller, blood vessels leading to a heart attack and/or stroke. Currently, the factors that induce VSM cell apoptosis, and the mechanisms by which they do so, are not fully known. Our lab is investigating whether fatty acids induce apoptosis in VSM cells. Research in other cell types indicates that saturated fatty acids can induce cellular apoptosis while treatment with unsaturated fatty acids or a combination of the two types does not. We aim to determine if this same trend occurs in VSM cells. We are also looking at the processes involved in fatty acid transport into VSM cells. This project also relates to atherosclerosis as VSM cells in the atherosclerotic plaque contain larger pools of intracellular lipids, compared to those residing in their normal location in the blood vessel wall.
Dr. Scott Falke, associate professor of biology
One of his research interests is a systems biology approach that investigates chaperonin-facilitated protein folding using two-dimensional gel electrophoresis coupled with protein identification via mass spectrometry. The goal is to simultaneously identify stress environment protein substrates and to determine the structure/function relationship of the Chaperonin complex.
In addition, Dr. Falke received the Spencer Family Sabbatical Fellowship in 2009-2010 to further his research on the structure of anthrax toxin. He is a member of a collaborative research team that hopes to one day develop a vaccine to protect humans from lethal anthrax infection. Although it is known that the anthrax toxin consists of three protein components, no one knew the structure of the protective antigen pore protein component (what the pore actually looks like). The protective antigen pore protein of anthrax toxin is responsible for delivering the other two anthrax toxins into human cells, which leads to cell death. “Solving the structure is an important step in understanding how the pore facilitates transfer of toxins into the cell,” Dr. Falke said. “Understanding the structure of the pore gives us new insight into the molecular details of anthrax toxicity.”
Dr. Paul Klawinski, professor of biology
Students are involved in the first four of his five primary research areas:
- Examining the effects of hurricanes on arthropods, amphibians and reptiles using long-term monitoring and a large-scale, experimental simulation of hurricane damage in 30x30 meter plots in the Luquillo Experimental Forest.
- Effects of introduced plant species on arthropods and their associated introduced predators (coqui frogs) in lowland moist tropical forests in Hawaii.
- Studies of the resistance and resilience of communities after land use changes by including former pastures as study sites in the annual Puerto Rico Spider Survey.
- Examining the role of biodiversity in providing ecosystem services by experimentally manipulating the decomposer community and measuring the effect of different functional groups on decomposition.
- Examining the biogeography of the Greater and Lesser Antilles using the extant distribution of spiders on these islands.
Dr. Jennifer Moody, assistant professor of biology
She is a plant-ecologist interested in plant-animal interactions, population dynamics, invasive species and evolutionary ecology focusing on the plants found in native tallgrass prairie and forest ecosystems. In the past, her research has included an investigation of the role of dormant seeds (i.e. the seed bank) in the population dynamics of wild sunflowers (Helianthus annuus), an examination of pollination limitation in the hawkmoth-pollinated Missouri Evening Primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa), and surveys of roadside populations of H. annuus, both on a local and regional scale. She has also worked with the Kansas Biological Survey, mapping prairies in northeast Kansas and assessing riparian vegetation in New Mexico. She is currently working on developing a research program that focuses on plant-insect interactions on native prairie and glade species.