Events and speakers

McKibben urges climate action in campus lecture

Bill McKibben explained the impact of increasing carbon emissions on the global climate and explored solutions to slowing the trend

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben responds to an audience member’s question at his lecture on Oct. 4 in Jesse Hall. The screen behind him shows demonstrators blocking an oil rig from leaving harbor. McKibben called them “kayak-tivists.” Photo by Eleanor Hasenbeck | Bond Life Sciences

Bill McKibben responds to an audience member’s question at his lecture on Oct. 4 in Jesse Hall. The screen behind him shows demonstrators blocking an oil rig from leaving harbor. McKibben called them “kayak-tivists.” Photo by Eleanor Hasenbeck | Bond Life Sciences

Eleanor Hasenbeck | Bond Life Sciences Center

Climate writer and activist Bill McKibben spoke to a packed house at the Missouri Theater Wednesday, October 4. With more than 300 people in attendance, McKibben discussed the changing climate, its impacts and his activism. The lecture was part of the Lloyd B. Thomas Lecture & Performance Series.

“It’s happened a hell of a lot faster and pinched a hell of a lot harder than we thought it would,” said McKibben of climate change.

McKibben said the signs of a warming planet first became apparent in the 1970s. Today, the oceans have become 30% more acidic as the world’s salt water takes in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Hurricanes are breaking records in the amount of rainfall and monetary damage they bring, McKibben said.

The solution lies in consuming less and using alternative energy, he continued. Last year, half of Denmark’s energy was generated by wind. Solar panels are so affordable now that homes in east Africa once lit by kerosene lanterns are powered by solar panels on the roofs of small homes.

“If we actually wanted to, we could move with real speed to make this transition,” McKibben said.

Why aren’t we then? McKibben blames the fossil fuel industry. Internal communications from Exxon Mobil show the corporation took steps to protect its drilling rigs from rising sea levels and increasing severe weather at the same time it was working to block regulations that would decrease carbon emissions.

“It took me far too long to figure out that we were not in argument at all,” McKibben said, referring to the so-called debate as to whether a warming climate is caused by human impact. “We were in a fight, and a fight is always about money and power. The fossil fuel industry was the richest and the most powerful industry on the planet, and the fact that it had lost the argument made very little difference to it. It was winning the fight day after day after day.”

But for all the doom and gloom surrounding climate change, McKibben still has hope that we can slow the process. He founded 350, an organization working to use grass roots movements to oppose fossil fuels. According to 350.org, 350 is named after an acceptable concentration of carbon in the atmosphere, 350 parts per million.  Demonstrations through the organization have taken place across the world, from American cities to places most susceptible to rising sea levels, like the Maldives and Haiti.

At Bond LSC, some are taking their own steps to slow down the rate of the world’s warming. Cheryl Rosenfeld studies Bisphenol A, a chemical component of many plastics. She recently installed solar panels on her home, and she earns credits for the energy they generate. She uses reusable bags at the grocery store to reduce the waste generated from plastic and the fossil fuels consumed to produce them.

“Each of us could be making the decisions in our own lives that can make a change,” Rosenfeld said. “If we all come together like that, we can make an impact.”

There are several ways to reduce your own carbon footprint:

  • Use renewable energy to power your home. You can find utilities companies that generate at least half their power through renewable energy
  • Weatherize your home to make your heating and cooling systems more efficient.
  • Invest in energy-efficient appliances. Use a power strip or unplug your devices when they are fully charged or not in use.
  • Reduce food and water waste. About 10 percent of American energy goes to food production, and about 40 percent of our food is wasted. You can save money and energy by eating what you buy.
  • Install solar panels on your home. Right now, you can earn a 30 percent federal solar tax credit. The city of Columbia also offers rebates to encourage utilities customers to use solar energy and invest in more energy efficient utility systems. The city also maintains a list of solar providers that meet its requirements for rebates.

The most important thing, said McKibben, is inspiring policy changes like carbon taxes or renewable energy programs.

“We’re so far deep into this problem that we can’t solve it one person at a time. What we need is a change in policy, said McKibben. “The best individual action is not to be an individual. It’s to come together in movements big enough – that doesn’t take an enormous movement. It takes between four or five percent of people coming together in a movement to force change in policy that might give us some chance.”

 

Bill McKibben is author of sixteen books about environmental issues and founder of 350. He frequently contributes articles and editorials to organizations such as the New York Times, the Guardian and Mother Jones. You can learn more about his writing and activism at his website.

Bond Life Sciences Center sponsored the 2016 LSSP Symposium, Confronting Climate Change, which brought experts in the field to MU to speak about its pressing issues.

 

The power of a hug

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Kory Floyd speaks about humans’ need for affection. Floyd spoke during the 13th annual Life Sciences and Society Symposium on Saturday, Oct. 7. | Photo by Roger Meissen, Bond LSC

By: Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC

Kory Floyd was stressed and having an all-around bad day, but then a coworker offered him a hug.

“That hug didn’t change anything about what had gone in my day but it changed everything about what the way that I felt,” Floyd said. “Suddenly all that stress, suddenly all that disappointment, all that worry, it didn’t go away but it seemed to lift off my shoulders, it wasn’t weighing me down.”

Floyd studies how prosocial communication, like affection, compassion, and trust, affect individuals psychologically.

He spoke specifically on communicating affection during the Life Sciences and Society Symposium on Saturday, Oct. 7.

Affection can be communicated through verbal and non-verbal communication as well as through supportive behavior. This last category is one he discovered through his research. Supportive behavior like keeping someone’s car in good condition or helping someone with a task is sometimes the most common way of expressing affection, especially between men.

The University of Arizona communications professor said he started his research by exploring an aspect of affection that confused him in his life. Growing up in a family of huggers, Floyd said he soon found out that not everyone appreciated the same type or kind of affection.

Expressing affection can be risky. Affection can be misinterpreted or not reciprocated, censured by culture, and even transmit disease.

So why bother?

For Floyd, the answer is simple, “Affection as an emotion and behavior is a fundamental human need.”

To elaborate on his belief, he pointed to how humans are born dependent on others to survive for many years. A child needs someone to feed, protect, provide for it and often make huge financial and personal sacrifices. As Floyd points out, many parents willing to do this due to love.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily a stretch to claim that an infant’s ability to get someone to love it is a matter of life or death.” He theorized. “It is a matter of that infant’s survival to get someone to feel a strong enough emotional investment that they are willing to make all the other kinds of investment that are required for that’s infant’s survival.”

As we age, affection transforms into something that feeds our need to belong.

Floyd’s studies have revealed positive associations between affection and happiness and social engagement. Other research revealed that affectionate communication is associated with mental wellness and physical health. When exposed to stressful events, highly affectionate people react with less arousal and recover faster. When compared to a less affectionate person, the more affectionate person has a better immune system, lower blood glucose levels and improved cortisol rhythm.

“It’s really difficult to thrive without some measure of affection,” Floyd concluded.

While not everyone needs the same amount of affection, it is a ubiquitous form of prosocial communication.

“None of what I described here is a prescription for you to go out and start hugging people on the sidewalk, that is not a pathway to health, that is a pathway to incarceration,” Floyd joked as he concluded his talk.

Instead, he highlighted that affection is different than other communication behaviors because it is something we reserve for only the important relationships in our lives.

“We talk to anybody, we gesture to anybody but we don’t kiss just anybody, we don’t hug just anybody,” He said. “This is a special behavior and its something that we preserve and reserve for the very special people in our lives.”

The 13th annual Life Sciences and Society Symposium, The Science of Love, started Friday, Oct. 6 and Saturday, Oct. 7. It features six experts that research various aspects of love, relationships and connection. The event will conclude on Friday, Oct. 13 with its last speaker, Jim Obergefell, who was the plaintiff in the 2015 Supreme Court case on marriage equality.

Being friendly can payoff

Dr. Brian Hare

Dr. Brian Hare speaks about how friendliness and natural selection are connected at the 13th annual LSSP symposium, The Science of Love. | photo by Roger Meissen

Hare explains survival of the friendliest as component of natural selection

By Allison Scott | Bond LSC

Dogs really are a man’s best friend if you ask Brian Hare.

Our four-legged friends are a direct result of chance coupled with domestication. And over the course of hundreds of years, that domestication has led to deep bonds between humans and dogs.

“You love your dog, physiologically, the same way as your offspring or partner,” Hare said.

Throughout his career, Hare has analyzed various animals from dogs and foxes to chimpanzees and bonobos to determine how much friendliness actually is a factor in their survival.

Recently, Hare has focused on primates. In his studies, he’s observed distinct differences between chimpanzees and bonobos, both of which are closely related species.

“Chimpanzees are like humans,” Hare said. “Bonobos have a different social system.”

Chimpanzees tend to be the more aggressive, male-dominated of the two. On the other hand, bonobos are the exact opposite and thrive on a more equal approach. Bonobos love to share with anyone and everyone, making them friendlier.

Hare has been able to support this difference through a series of experiments. They show that one bonobo will likely help a stranger in a cage get food that is just out of reach. These experiments showed that bonobos are willing to help others in most situations unless there’s a high cost or risk to self.

The evolutionary elements of friendliness and the traits behind kindness Hare identified as a possible reason homo sapiens won out over other human ancestors like Neanderthals. This is due, in part, to what Hare calls the ‘like me’ trait.

“If we as humans can categorize based on cultural or social characteristics that someone is “like us,” we’re more likely to help them out,” Hare said. “This leads to bonds.”

The opposite is also true, though. This means if we identify someon as “not like us,” we’re less likely to help them. That stark difference between humans and both chimpanzees and bonobos makes for a more complicated communication process, and contributes to humans being both the friendliest and cruelest species alive.

At the end of the day, though, Hare strongly believes the science supports friendliness as a component of natural selection.

“You can win big by being friendly in the evolutionary game,” Hare said.

The 13th annual Life Sciences and Society Symposium, The Science of Love, started Friday, Oct. 6 and Saturday, Oct. 7. It features six experts that research various aspects of love, relationships and connection. The event will conclude on Friday, Oct. 13 with its last speaker, Jim Obergefell, who was the plaintiff in the 2015 Supreme Court case on marriage equality.

Forming a bond

Dr. Larry Young

Dr. Larry Young opens the second day of The Science of Love. | photo by Roger Meissen

Larry Young explores chemicals behind monogamy in prairie voles, humans

By Allison Scott | Bond LSC

Upon first glance, it wouldn’t seem that humans and small rodents have that much in common.

However, Larry Young extensively studies the prairie vole because their desire to mate for life.

“Prairie voles mate for life,” Young said. “That’s very unusual, in fact, only three to five percent of mammals do this.”

This commonality between the small mammal and humans allows Young to relate his research on voles to humans. His goal is to understand the neurochemical bond that occurs between two voles after mating.

Neurologically, this “pair bonding” occurs largely because of oxytocin. The brain houses receptors for this hormone that create pleasure from it. The resulting feeling’s mutual, and chemical, leading a bond to form.

“The brain’s reward system houses the receptors that make oxytocin an influential chemical,” Young said. “Prairie voles activate this when they bond.”

Young manipulates the prairie vole’s brain to try an understand why exactly pair bonding exists. He then takes brain scans of them, compares them to mice that aren’t monogamous and sees what’s happening differently in their brains. In doing so, he is able to pinpoint differences in the voles and apply that knowledge to humans.

“We should think of ourselves as part of a continuum,” Young said. “The voles have a similar makeup to humans, but we don’t say that they’re in love – we say they’re bonded.”

That distinction makes a difference in Young’s studies. However, he’s still able to learn a lot about people by observing voles, and it’s those revelations that Young enjoys most.

That insight might one day lead to treatments for autism or other disorders where issues in interaction and bonding affect people.

“The Science of Love isn’t just entertaining,” Young said. “It has the potential to change lives for the better.”

The 13th annual Life Sciences and Society Symposium, The Science of Love, started Friday, Oct. 6 and Saturday, Oct. 7. It features six experts that research various aspects of love, relationships and connection. The event will conclude on Friday, Oct. 13 with its last speaker, Jim Obergefell, who was the plaintiff in the 2015 Supreme Court case on marriage equality.

Balancing lust, romance and attachment

Dr. Helen Fisher

Dr. Helen Fisher opens the 13th annual LSSP symposium, The Science of Love, on Friday, Oct. 6. | photo by Allison Scott

Helen Fisher delves into the relationships we choose and why in our digital age

By Allison Scott | Bond LSC

We might not understand what drives us to establish and maintain romantic relationships, but Helen Fisher has made her living trying to figure it out.

The romantic love expert spoke Friday, October 6, in Bond LSC about the neurological reasons behind why humans behave the way they do.

“Romantic love is located right next to thirst and hunger in the brain – it’s a survival system,” Fisher said. “If we survive another million years, we will continue to fall in love.”

Fisher has worked in tandem with the dating site match.com for more than a decade to tailor sites like chemistry.com to look at how relationships actually work in our brains and in practice. Using data from match.com that represents the U.S. population, Fisher detailed how the digital age impacts the dating scene.

“Fundamentally, love isn’t changing,” Fisher said. “Courtship patterns are.”

He research indicates a tendency toward “slow love,” where partners tend to get sexually involved sooner, but are more cautious about marriage and take much longer than previous generations to pair up in that way.

Technology, meeting online and evolving social norms play  huge roles in these changes, but she argued that dating sites aren’t really dating sites at all.

“They’re introducing sites,” Fisher said. “The only real algorithm is your brain.”

These changes in how people meet influence marriage, too. She highlighted how cohabitating influences the perception of marriage and its overall impact, as well as the increased tendency for more casual sexual encounters.

“What we’re seeing now is the expanding of the pre-commitment stage of romance,” Fisher said. “Marriage used to be the beginning of a relationship, but now it’s the end.”

While modern couples often postpone marriage, Fisher notes that most people do marry before they reach the age of 50 and she feels positively toward relationship trends and the direction that romantic love is headed.

“I’m extremely optimistic,” Fisher said. “We’re marrying later and moving toward relative marriage relationship stability.”

The 13th annual Life Sciences and Society Symposium, The Science of Love, started Friday, Oct. 6 and Saturday, Oct. 7. It features six experts that research various aspects of love, relationships and connection. The event will conclude on Friday, Oct. 13 with its last speaker, Jim Obergefell, who was the plaintiff in the 2015 Supreme Court case on marriage equality.

Old friends, new ideas

A partnership between MU and Gyeongsang National University in South Korea has created lasting connections

By Eleanor Hasenbeck | Bond Life Sciences Center

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Discussion went global this week as researchers converged from Gyeongsang National University in South Korea, MU and Washington University at Bond Life Sciences Center for the sixth MU-GNU International Joint Symposium in Plant Biotechnology.

Plant biologists from each university shared their research, ranging from molecular biology and signaling to breeding soybeans for improved yields. The symposium is held every two years, alternating locations between the U.S. and South Korea. This conference marks the eleventh year of collaboration between GNU and MU.

“Every trip that comes over, new collaborations develop,” said Gary Stacey, a Bond LSC scientist of soybean biotechnology and chair of the symposium’s local organizing committee. “Just at dinner the other night, you could hear people talking and saying ‘We should do that together.’ You get people together and they collide, and good things come from that. The whole idea of these symposiums is try to increase those collisions.”

As those involved share new research and ideas, these collaborations create opportunities. A former student in Stacey’s lab recently received a doctoral degree from both universities as part of a joint-doctoral degree program. Undergraduate Korean students can also complete a “2+2” degree, where students can begin their studies with two years at GNU and finish with two years at MU.

The schools also exchange faculty members. GNU researchers Jong Chan Hong and Woo Sik Chung completed sabbaticals at MU. Stacey has spent time in Korea, and his lab receives funding from Korean grants.

“Getting our students to interact with Korean students and Korean faculty expands their horizons, gets them in contact with other cultures and is really part of creating an intellectual environment where students can grow,” Stacey said.

For Stacey, the symposium has also brought valued friendships. “After you’ve been over there, and you know these guys for eleven years, it’s like your cousin coming home,” he said. “You’re not a visitor anymore. You’re like part of the family.”

For more information about the science exchanged, visit http://staceylab.missouri.edu/symposium.

From neuroscience to negotiations

Neuroscientist and former Secretary of State science adviser to speak at Life Sciences Week
By Eleanor C. Hasenbeck | Bond Life Sciences

Frances Colon

Frances Colón has spent the past decade representing the United States all over the world on topics ranging from climate change to the advancement of women scientists. She will reflect on that experience in her talk at 3:30 p.m. Monday, April 11 in Monsanto Auditorium. | Photo courtesy of Frances Colón

A career in science doesn’t only mean working in a lab, and no one knows that better than Frances Colón.

Colón, a neuroscientist by training and policy maker by trade, will speak about how scientists can become more involved in policy without abandoning the laboratory bench.

During her Missouri Life Sciences Week lecture “My path to science citizenship,” Colón will talk about her transition from the lab to policy. She’ll speak 3:30 p.m. Monday, April 10, in Monsanto Auditorium.

“I think scientists need to realize that they have a broader set of skills than they give themselves credit for that can be applied to the service of the community and their country in many different ways,” said Colón. “I think we’re living in a time where our country needs scientists to get engaged at every level. That doesn’t mean they need to leave a career in academia to go into policy, but it could certainly mean involvement everywhere from the community level to the national level.”

After receiving a doctoral degree in neuroscience and studying how nerve cells mature at Brandeis University, Colón first got involved in making policy as an American Association for the Advancement of Sciences policy fellow. She then served as science and environment adviser for western hemisphere affairs for more than three years before she became deputy science and technology adviser to the Secretary of State, a position she served in until January.

As deputy science adviser, she led efforts to reengage Cuba in scientific collaboration after U.S. policy regarding Cuba shifted. She also coordinated climate change policy for the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas, and she worked to advance women and girls in science, technology, engineering and math. Today, she looks to use platforms outside of the government to accomplish the same missions.

Colón said of her career thus far, she is most proud of the work she’s done to educate women in opportunities in STEM careers.

“A lot of these countries started to realize that they can’t tackle a lot of the biggest challenges they’re confronting, from climate change to energy security, without having all of their best talent at the table. That required providing equal opportunity for women and men to achieve these positions,” Colón said. “We worked a lot on finding opportunities for girls to discover STEM careers and to help countries plan out what their STEM capacity building activities could be.”

These activities included things like the two-week camps for girls in South America and Africa, where they learned about coding and genetics with help from corporate partners.

Colón holds a doctorate from Brandeis University, and a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Puerto Rico. She was a delegate to the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations’ Young Leaders Forum, and a graduate of the National Hispana Leadership Institute. Last year, she was named one of the 20 most influential Latinos in technology by CNET en Español.

Colón will speak at 3:30 Monday, April 10 in Monsanto Auditorium as part of Missouri Life Sciences Week.

National Cancer Institute researcher to speak at Life Sciences Week

By Jinghong Chen | Bond Life Sciences Center

“Living things are too beautiful for there not to be a mathematics that describes them.”

Thomas D. Schneider will speak Tuesday, April 11 in Bond LSC’s Monsanto Auditorium. | Photo by National Institutes of Health

Thomas D. Schneider will speak Tuesday, April 11 in Bond LSC’s Monsanto Auditorium. | Photo by National Institutes of Health

This is Thomas Schneider’s motto.

Schneider, a research biologist at the National Cancer Institute, spent most of his career understanding math and its relation with fundamental biology. His lab focuses on the DNA and RNA patterns that characterize genetic control systems; they invented the widely-used sequence logos.

“In the first place, I am doing this because I am curious,” Schneider said. “Let’s go find the math and who knows what would come out of that.”

Schneider will speak during the 33rd annual Missouri Life Sciences Week, a celebration of MU’s science research and collaboration across disciplines.

Claude Shannon’s information theory lays the foundation of Schneider’s study. In the landmark paper published in 1948, Shannon defined the quantity of information and how it transmits amid interference of noise. When people communicate via a phone call, the heat of the telephone line is one type of noise. As noise contaminates information, the highest rate at which information can be reliably transmitted over a noisy communication channel is defined as the channel capacity.

A similar concept emerges in Schneider’s Molecular Information Theory. It leads to a theoretical measure of the efficiency of molecules.

“I thought [Shannon’s] theory was screaming as I dragged it into biology. The stunning thing is that it fits biology really, really well,” Schneider said.

He looked at the DNA binding protein EcoRI, a restriction enzyme that binds DNA. When it binds, there is an inequality relationship between information and the information gained for the dissipated energy. The efficiency of DNA binding sites on nucleic acids is about 70 percent.

This mysterious number has appeared widely in his research and it also describes ecological evenness. In an even ecosystem with all species being equally represented, the evenness is close to 100 percent, but when only one species dominates the environment, its evenness dwindles to 0 percent.

Schneider found that fish species diversity in a Georgia estuary is near 70 percent and the evenness of plant species in different divisions of 8-square-meter plots in California is also around 70 percent.

When Schneider turns from ecological system to biological systems, this number still stands out. Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans), a free-living tiny worm, has been extensively studied and has had its entire cell lineage traced. On the basis of previous studies, Schneider calculated the efficiency of its lineage and found that the number fits the ubiquitous 70 percent, when excluding the dead cells of a C. elegans.

With this established case, one of his colleagues suggested looking into one of human’s biggest enemy – cancer. Cancer occurs when a cell develops mutations and grows out of control. Schneider hypothesized that if you have more of a certain type of cell, then you have a larger chance for that cell type to get a mutation that might lead to cancer.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) publishes a report on all different types of cancers observed each five or six years. Based on the data collected by IARC and the hypothesis, Schneider found that for adults whose ages are above 14 years old, the cancer type evenness always remains around 70 percent.

“The thing that is interesting is that when you understand things fundamentally, it inevitably leads to practical results,” Schneider said.

Schneider’s speech on “Three Principles of Biological States: Ecology and Cancer” will be held at 1:15 p.m. April 11 in the Monsanto Auditorium at Bond Life Sciences Center.

Missouri Life Sciences Week is a university-wide event that brings together research across scientific disciplines at Mizzou. This year will highlight more than 300 student, faculty and staff research presentations and four topical lectures by accomplished researchers in addition to career development workshops and scientific service and supply exhibits.

Check out the full schedule of events here.

 

Hanson to explain why broken metabolites matter at Life Sciences Week

By Jinghong Chen | Bond Life Sciences Center

Andrew Hanson, right, will speak Friday, April 14 in Bond LSC's Monsanto Auditorium as the 2017 Dr. Charles W Gehrke speaker. | Photo by University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences

Andrew Hanson, right, will speak Friday, April 14 in Bond LSC’s Monsanto Auditorium as the 2017 Dr. Charles W Gehrke speaker. | Photo by University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences

People often think of metabolism as a perfect network. But that assumption is simply not accurate.

Andrew Hanson, an eminent scholar and professor at the University of Florida, describes the misunderstanding as “the power of a paradigm.” American biochemist Albert Lehninger spread the misunderstanding in his classic textbook “Biochemistry”, in which the message he communicated to generations of students was: metabolism is a beautiful machine that functions flawlessly.

Hanson challenges this “metabolism is perfect” paradigm using illustrations from different kinds of organisms in his lecture. He will speak in Bond LSC’s Monsanto Auditorium at 1 p.m. Friday April 14, during the 33rd annual Missouri Life Sciences Week.

For every living organism, metabolism is the sum of every chemical reaction that occurs to maintain life. This sum contains all the metabolites — small molecules created at each level of cell processes and final products — that share a part in the growth, development, reproduction and running of cells and whole organisms.

However, enzymes can make mistakes; many chemical compounds in cells are unstable and undergo spontaneous reactions. The consequences of enzyme errors and chemical side-reactions are, at best, unwanted and sometimes toxic, so organisms have developed mechanisms – damage-control systems – to deal with the consequences of damage.

Hanson’s lab has studied metabolite damage and the damage-control systems that plants and microorganisms employ to cope. But the impact of metabolic problems also reaches into the human domain, causing disease from failure or mutation of damage repair enzymes. “It matters in aging humans and animals a great deal, because aging is the result of cumulative damage,” Hanson said.

Plants are also afflicted by metabolite damage. Under environmental stress such as high temperature or water loss, the error rate of enzymes and rates of unwanted chemical reactions can go up.

The understanding of metabolite damage could also advance metabolic engineering, which is a purposeful manipulation by combining metabolic pathways and DNA techniques to produce desired products. After creating new pathways in an organism, it may fail to cope with the abnormal reactions produced by the new pathways. To fix the problem, the only solution might be to install the required damage control enzymes.

Hanson’s lab hopes to identify new or unsuspected damage reactions, and enzymes that repair or prevent damage. They also are working to connect with metabolic engineering groups that install modified pathways in plants and microbes to study sources of damage and propose solutions.

Metabolism is not perfect. However, after studying its imperfection for years, Hanson concluded, “life is put together in a very beautiful and even more powerful way than we first realize. It makes a lot of mistakes, but it also fixes them so well that we do not even notice them.”

Hanson’s lecture on “Fixing or safely trashing broken metabolites and why it matters” is this year’s Charles W. Gehrke distinguished lecture. Gehrke, a longtime MU professor of Biochemistry, was selected by NASA to analyze rocks retrieved from the first moon landing for any traces of extraterrestrial life. He died in 2009.

Hanson’s lecture is free and open to the public as part of Missouri Life Sciences Week. It occurs at 1:00 on Friday, April 14 in Bond LSC’s Monsanto Auditorium. See more about events during the week at bondlsc.missouri.edu/life-sciences-week.

Harvard researcher to speak at Life Sciences Week

Jessica Whited studies the genetics behind how salamanders grow severed limbs

By Eleanor Hasenbeck | Bond LSC

axolotl Ruben

An axolotl rests at the bottom of its tank at Menagerie du Jardin des Plantes in Paris. | photo by Jack Baker, Flickr

It takes about two months for an axolotl to regenerate a lost limb. Humans, as you probably know, don’t regenerate limbs.

But, a basic understanding of how the Mexican salamander regrows limbs advance regenerative medicine in humans according to Jessica Whited, a researcher at Brigham Women’s Hospital and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.

Whited will speak at 3:30 p.m., Thursday April 13, in Monsanto Auditorium as part of Missouri Life Sciences Week at Bond Life Science Center. Her lecture, “Identifying roadblocks to regeneration in axolotl salamanders” will present the lab’s discoveries and evidence that a specific gene in axolotls can block the animal’s ability to regenerate.

Whited’s lab found axolotls can exhaust their ability to regenerate. When a limb is severed repeatedly, the salamander stops producing blastemas, the mass of cells capable of regeneration that allow the limb to grow back. This could be due to a dysregulated gene blocking the animal’s ability to produce them.

The Whited Lab sequenced the mRNA in axolotls that could regenerate limbs and that could no longer regenerate. They found 912 genes that differed between the two groups. Whited will discuss one of these genes, which her lab considers a potential inhibitor to regeneration.

“It’s much more common for people to think “Oh, what are the things that promote limb regeneration?’ than it is to think about the things that we might have to block to make it happen,” Whited said. “This project has the potential to uncover the roadblocks, which could turn out to be equally critical.”

An MU alumna, Whited received the National Institutes of Health New Innovator Award in 2015 for her work with this unique regenerative salamander. She earned a PhD in biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and two undergraduate degrees in biological sciences and philosophy at MU.

Whited attended MU as a Bright Flight and Curator’s Scholar. And though it happened nearly 20 years ago, she said receiving those two scholarships were among the most important things that happened in her career. As a high school student, she knew she would go to college, but financially, she didn’t know how it would happen. She also credits her education and undergraduate research experience at MU for preparing her to think at the research bench.

“You have to get an undergraduate education, and it totally prepared me even for graduate school at MIT, which is one of the top programs in the world, in many subjects, but in biology especially,” Whited said. “The idea that you could find a career where you’re using your brain as your primary asset, I figured that out while I was at the University of Missouri, because there were people, our professors, doing that.”

Whited’s lecture is free and open to the public as part of Missouri Life Sciences Week. It occurs at 3:30 on Thursday, April 13 in Bond LSC’s Monsanto Auditorium. See more about events during the week at bondlsc.missouri.edu/life-sciences-week.