Professor, Students Win Virginia Academy of Science Award

Posted: June 27, 2011 at 1:02 am, Last Updated: June 27, 2011 at 7:48 am

By Leah Kerkman Fogarty

For the second time in three years, a team at Mason has been awarded the highest honor bestowed by the Virginia Academy of Science for original research.

Professor Daniel Cox in his Krasnow Institute lab. Photo by Evan Cantwell

The 2011 J. Shelton Horsley Research Award has been presented to the laboratory of Daniel N. Cox, graduate program director in the School of Systems Biology and associate professor in the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study.

For the award, Cox and his research team submitted a paper on their work, “Class-Specific Profiling and in vivo RNAi Screen Reveal Complex Transcriptional Regulatory Networks Mediating Dendritic Architecture.”

Cox and his team are investigating how the shape and structure of a neuron’s dendrites (the branchlike structures that transmit electric impulses between neurons) can impact function, specifically sensory function.

This so-called dendritic morphology can affect the brain through such conditions as autism or mental retardation or diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. The researchers use Drosophila melanogaster, also known as the fruit fly, as a model system.

The award-winning research builds off previous work Cox’s group conducted in which they isolated pure populations of neurons and performed genome microarray studies on them. Once you’ve isolated the specific classes of neurons, there are more questions to answer, Cox says.

“What are the genes that are expressed in this class of neuron versus another class of neuron? Then you’re looking for what’s different between these classes,” Cox says. “What’s the unique signature that’s potentially driving the cell to take on a given set of functions?”

Image of a neuron courtesy of Daniel N. Cox.

The research team comprised Cox, two graduate students and a postgraduate student, as well as a high school student whom Cox mentored through Mason’s Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program (ASSIP).

Over the course of a year and a half, the researchers conducted high-throughput functional screens to profile a specific class of neurons in the fruit fly.

“In a single class of neuron, there are approximately 420 transcription factors, which are genes that regulate expression of other genes,” explains Cox. “And that number was striking because the fruit fly only has 754 transcription factors total — so more than 50 percent of the transcription factors in the entire genome are expressed in a single cell type.”

But what Cox and his research team are trying to get to the bottom of is how these transcription factors drive the shape and function of dendrites and how that affects neural connectivity.

Of the 420 transcription factors, Cox and his team identified 267 genes that can affect dendritic morphology — the shape and function of dendrites. And 80 of these genes had not previously been characterized, Cox says. “They were totally new discoveries,” he says.

A certificate and a monetary award were presented at the annual meeting of the Virginia Academy of Science on May 26.

The recipients of the award are:

  • Daniel N. Cox
  • Eswar Prasad R. Iyer, Biosciences PhD student
  • Srividya Chandramouli Iyer, Biosciences PhD student
  • Ramakrishna Meduri, postgraduate student
  • Dennis Wang, former student with ASSIP and currently an undergraduate at Yale University

The research was funded in part by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, part of the National Institutes of Health, and the Jeffress Memorial Trust. The first author on the paper, Eswar Iyer, also received support from Mason’s Office of the Provost.

Monique van Hoek, assistant professor in the School of Systems Biology, along with two students, was awarded the J. Shelton Horsley Research Award in 2009. The team received the honor for their paper, “Initial Report of in vitro Biofilm Formation in Francisella: A Role for an Orphan Response Regulator.”



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