All it took was one genetic mutation more than 600 million years ago. With that random act, a new protein function was born that helped our single-celled ancestor transition into an organized multicellular organism. That’s the scenario—done with some molecular time travel—that emerged from basic research in the lab of University of Oregon biochemist Ken Prehoda.
The mutation and a change it brought in protein interactions are detailed in a paper published in eLife, an open-access journal launched in 2012 with support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Max Planck Society, and the Wellcome Trust.
The research helps address several important questions that scientists have had about evolution, said Prehoda, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and director of the UO’s Institute of Molecular Biology. It also has implications for studying disease states, such as cancer, in which damaged cells no longer cooperate with other cells in our bodies and revert back to a unicellular state where each is on its own.
Mutations can lead to favorable or unfavorable results, or even to a combination of the two, said Prehoda, whose laboratory investigates how proteins work inside of cells.
“Proteins are the workhorses of our cells, performing a wide variety of tasks such as metabolism,” he says. “But how does a protein that performs one task evolve to perform another? And how do complex systems like those that allow cells to work together in an organized way evolve the many different proteins they require? Our work suggests that new protein functions can evolve with a very small number of mutations. In this case, only one was required.
“This mutation is one small change that dramatically altered the protein’s function, allowing it to perform a completely different task. You could say that animals really like these proteins because there are now more than 70 of them inside of us.”
Grants from the National Institutes of Health to Prehoda and collaborators Joseph W. Thornton (of the University of Chicago) and Nicole King (of the University of California at Berkeley), as well as an early career award from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to Thornton, supported the research.
Near the Mediterranean island of Santorini, a team of UO scientists spent a month studying the plumbing system of magma formed by the largest supervolcanic eruption of the past 10,000 years. Faculty members Emilie Hooft and Doug Toomey led an expedition that also included six UO students as well as scientists from other institutions in the United States, Greece, and the United Kingdom. The group gathered data that, if all goes as planned, could allow scientists to map the magma system in much more detail than has previously been possible. This information could help answer questions about a 1956 earthquake and tsunami in Greece. This study was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation and was based on the US research vessel Marcus G. Langseth.
Leafcutter ants, found in the southern United States and throughout much of South America, live in massive colonies that gather and process fresh vegetation to use as a base for cultivating a fungus that forms their diet.
Their complex society, which relies on a strong division of labor, was investigated in a recent study by UO physics professor Robert Schofield and a six-member team, who documented the ants’ prehensile skills and the layers of behaviors associated with cutting and gathering leaves, delivering them to the nests, and processing them to grow the fungus. “The ants are remarkably handy, often using three legs as a tripod to stand on and the other three legs to handle leaf pieces as they cut, scrape, lick, puncture, and chemically treat them,” the researchers reported. “When the processing is complete, the ants rock the leaf fragments into the comb, much like stonemasons building a wall.”
The findings were published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.
The popular “Oregon—Where Past is Present” exhibit at the UO’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History is getting a makeover. The $500,000 project will add new interactive technology, a display devoted to Oregon’s Paisley Caves, an enhanced basketry display, and a duck sculpture of mysterious origin.
The stone sculpture of a duck was uncovered in 1956 near Mapleton, west of Eugene. “The duck is unusual,” says Pamela Endzweig, director of the museum’s anthropological collections. “It differs stylistically from typical Columbia River and Northwest Coast stone carvings, and it comes from an area where few stone representations of animals have been found.”
An entirely new exhibit, “Paisley Caves and the First Americans,” will help tell the story of Oregon’s deep cultural past, inviting visitors to re-examine long-held ideas about when humans first arrived in North America. The interactive exhibit will feature 14,300-year-old coprolites (dried human feces) along with bone and wood artifacts that have never before been on public display.
Five Oregon students have earned Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarships to support their studies abroad. Each student will receive $5,000 to defray the costs of their international explorations in spring 2016. The scholarship is intended to encourage more students from traditionally underrepresented groups to study or intern abroad. This year, the UO ranked ninth among 358 participating schools for Gilman Scholarship recipients.
Peter Van de Graaff, a nationally known radio host, has joined the UO’s classical music radio station as music director and morning program host. A Chicago native, Van de Graaff spent 27 years at WFMT, a fine arts radio station in the Windy City. He is perhaps best known as a host and program director for the Beethoven Network, broadcast on 200 stations across the United States. He will continue in that role after he joins KWAX. Van de Graaff also performs as a bass-baritone, appearing with opera companies and orchestras worldwide. He was recently awarded the Karl Haas Prize for Music Education. He and his wife, Kathleen, also a professional singer, will relocate to Eugene at the end of February. “We are so excited for this opportunity,” says Van De Graaff. “My national show has aired on KWAX for many years, and I’ve been very impressed by the station and its listeners. This is an audience that really appreciates classical music and is interested in learning more. That is a big part of what attracted me to the job.”
With a grant of $900,000 from the W. M. Keck Foundation, UO scientists hope to help those suffering from vision loss. With colleagues at the UO Materials Science Institute, Richard Taylor (physics) is developing a next-generation retinal implant that has the potential to help patients suffering from macular degeneration, a common eye disease among people age 50 and over. The new implant will mirror the structure of neurons related to the eyes and is intended to connect technology and the body as seamlessly as possible. Taylor’s interdisciplinary team includes Benjamín Alemán and Miriam Deutsch (physics), Darren Johnson (chemistry and biochemistry), and Cris Niell (biology). The grant will allow the team to support six graduate student positions—as well as other costs—as they explore connections between the artificial and natural worlds. The technology used in the retinal implant could someday address Parkinson’s disease and depression, and help those using prosthetic limbs.
Geraldine “Geri” Richmond has been chosen to receive the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest award in science. She is one of a select group of prominent scientists and engineers who will receive medals from President Barack Obama during a ceremony at the White House this spring. Richmond has held the UO’s Presidential Chair in Science since 2013. She serves as a US science envoy to several countries in Southeast Asia, and is currently president of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science. Her research focuses on materials science and the chemical reactions that occur on liquid surfaces. Also a longtime advocate for women in science, she is cofounder of the Committee on the Advancement of Women Chemists.