Archive for October, 2012

Earth Scientist Gerbi Named Kavli Fellow

Friday, October 26th, 2012

University of Maine School of Earth and Climate Sciences associate professor Christopher Gerbi has been selected a Kavli Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences. He participated in the 2012 Chinese-American Symposium, which was held Oct. 12–14 in Irvine, Calif., and will serve as an organizer of the 2014 Chinese-American Symposium to be held in China.

Gerbi’s research is in the field of tectonics, with a focus on the mechanical properties of the continental crust.

The program is sponsored by the Kavli Foundation, which supports scientific research, honors scientific achievement, and promotes public understanding of scientists and their work. The National Academy of Sciences’ Kavli Frontiers of Science symposia bring together outstanding young scientists to discuss advances and opportunities in a broad range of disciplines.

U.S. symposium participants are selected from among recipients of prestigious fellowships, awards, and other honors, as well as from nominations by NAS members and other participants. In addition to learning about research at the frontiers of fields other than their own, the program is intended to create a network of connections that can be maintained as participants advance in their careers. Since its inception, 136 program alumni have been elected to the NAS and eight have won Nobel Prizes.

Contact: Jessica Bloch, (207) 581-3777

Discovery Could Reduce Muscle Degeneration

Friday, October 26th, 2012

Clarissa HenryUMaine Researcher Finds Vitamin-Based Treatment Could Counter Muscular Dystrophy Symptoms

Boosting the activity of a vitamin-sensitive cell adhesion pathway has the potential to counteract the muscle degeneration and reduced mobility caused by muscular dystrophies, according to a research team led by scientists at the University of Maine.

The discovery, published in the open access journal PLOS Biology, is particularly important for congenital muscular dystrophies, which are progressive, debilitating and often lethal diseases that currently remain without cure. The researchers found that they could improve muscle structure and function in a zebrafish version of muscular dystrophy by supplying a common cellular chemical (or its precursor, vitamin B3) to activate a cell adhesion pathway.

Muscle cells are in themselves relatively delicate, but derive important additional mechanical strength from adhesion protein complexes; these anchor the muscle cells to an external framework known as the basement membrane, thereby helping to buffer the cells against the extreme forces that they experience during muscle contractions. Mutations in the genes that encode these adhesion proteins can weaken these attachments, making muscle cells more susceptible to damage and death.

The resulting muscle degeneration can eventually lead to progressive muscle-wasting diseases, such as muscular dystrophies. A major component of the basement membrane, a protein called laminin, binds to multiple different receptors on the muscle cell surface and forms a dense, organized network.

The study was led by UMaine Associate Professor of Biological Sciences, Clarissa Henry, whose laboratory focuses on understanding how cell adhesion complexes contribute to muscle development. The researchers discovered that a pathway involving a common cellular chemical called nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+) plays a role in the formation of organized basement membranes in muscle tissue, during development of the fish embryo. As disordered basement membranes are seen in many different types of muscular dystrophies, the researchers wondered whether activating this pathway might reduce the severity of some muscular dystrophies.

In the current study, the researchers show that NAD+ improves the organization of laminin in a zebrafish version of muscular dystrophy. Zebrafish lacking either of the two main receptors for laminin have a disorganized basement membrane, causing muscle degeneration and difficulties with movement. However adding extra NAD+, or even an EmergenC vitamin packet containing vitamin B3 (niacin, a precursor to NAD+), significantly reduced these symptoms.

The research team found that the main protective effects of NAD+ come from enhancing the organization of the laminin structure in the basement membrane, which helps to increase the resilience of diseased muscle fibers.

Because the same cell adhesion complexes are found in humans, the research team is optimistic that these findings may one day positively impact patients with muscular dystrophies. “Although there is a long way to go, I’m hopeful that our data could eventually lead to new adjuvant therapies,” says University of Maine Ph.D. student Michelle Goody, who led the research team with Henry.

“One of my favorite aspects of this study is that it is a poster child for how asking basic biological questions can lead to exciting discoveries that may have future therapeutic potential,” Henry says.

Contact: Margaret Nagle, (207) 581-3745

Ecologist Featured in National Geographic Video

Friday, October 26th, 2012

Rhian Waller, a deep-sea and polar ecologist at the University of Maine who studies deep-sea corals, was featured in a video on the website of the National Geographic Society, which helped fund Waller’s recent research trip to Chile. Waller discussed the phenomenon of deep-water emergence, or areas where animals normally found at deep-sea depths are living in much more shallow levels than their usual distribution, allowing scientists to study the animals with more ease. Due to this phenomenon, Waller said in the video, she was recently able to collect during a dive in Chile a trove of coral samples. Waller also has funding from the National Science Foundation and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Contact: Jessica Bloch, (207) 581-3777