#IAmScience Nikita Gudekar

By Erica Overfelt | Bond LSC

You’ve probably seen TV in shows like Law & Order or CSI and not viewed them as career inspiration. But for graduate student Nikita Gudekar, all she could think about was the science behind their techniques.

As a child, Gudekar thought she could use the scientific techniques to catch the criminals, and as she grew up that initial goal evolved into working in the lab of Michael Petris in Bond LSC.

Gudekar, originally from Mumbai, India, received her undergraduate study in Mumbai before furthering her education at Mizzou. Gudekar is now a biological sciences graduate student and uses a bit different techniques to understand the effect of copper on the body and its role in diseases. The lab’s main focus is understanding the micronutrient copper and how changes in its utilization and distribution could result in a disease.

“I am currently working on discovering novel genes involved in copper metabolism,” Gudekar said. “We have created a unique cell line that lacks important genes related to copper homeostasis. These cells are very sensitive to even low levels of copper. Using a genome-wide CRISPR deletion, we have identified a novel gene that allows the sensitive cells to now live in copper. It is very exciting that we have made this discovery. Now I am dedicated to understanding the molecular mechanism of how this gene regulates copper homeostasis”

During her years in the Petris lab she has discovered breakthroughs in the world of copper-related research that could have wide applications in understanding important diseases.

“Considering my project, it is kind of a great when you delete or express something in the cell that makes them survive,” Gudekar said. “Survival is the best outcome you can get when you are trying to discover novel genes in a particular system. With this system in place, we are poised to identify many more genes involved in copper homeostasis.”

Copper isn’t an vitamin or mineral that comes to mind when like the zinc, vitamin D or calcium you see in supplements in the grocery store, but it’s essential for life and plays a role in many processes within cells.

“Copper is a trace metal, and if copper dependent enzymes in your cells do not get enough of it, there are a handful of diseases that occur,” Gudekar said. “A mutation in ATP7A gene results in Menkes disease in which there is a defect in transporting dietary copper to different organs in the body.”

Menkes disease is a genetic disorder that results in poor uptake and distribution of copper to cells. The incidence of this disease is estimated to be one in 100,000 newborns, according to U.S. National Library of Medicine. Infants with Menkes disease typically begin to develop symptoms during infancy and rarely live past the first few years of life. Abnormally high accumulation of copper in kidneys and low-level accumulation in the liver and brain, cause visible symptoms like sparse hair, loose skin and failure to grow.

After four years researching every day, Gudekar feels like her career is on the path toward what she dreamed about watching her childhood crime shows.

“This research is like hunting in the dark, it’s the unknown,” Gudekar said. “Yet whatever we get we always ask how is it related to copper.”

Hunting in the dark is opposite of boring for Gudekar.

“I like to unravel the things that are unknown,” Gudekar said. “For me, discovering something new is really exciting.”