National Institutes of Health Awards LMU Biologist Grant to Study How Protein Enters Mitochondria

Faculty and students in Loyola Marymount University’s Biology Department began work this fall on a study designed to advance fundamental knowledge of how proteins get into the mitochondria.

Funded by a $323,775 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the researchers are using a yeast model to examine how Aim32—a recently characterized protein of unknown function—gets into the mitochondria and its role in generating new mitochondria.

“We think that this protein may play a major role in one of the pathways used to get proteins into the mitochondria,” said Deepa Dabir, associate professor of biology and principal investigator on the project. “No one has studied this protein. Once we have a basic understanding, we can start to understand disease.“

The results will also give insight into how defects in proteins imported into the mitochondria can lead to a wide spectrum of diseases, including cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease.

The mitochondria is considered the powerhouse of the cell, because that’s where most of the energy for all our cellular needs is produced. That energy fuels all our body’s activity from thinking in the brain to the muscles that allow us to walk. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to perform any daily activities.

Besides energy production, mitochondria help maintain an ideal calcium environment and buffer against oxidative stress.

“The yeast model is easy to use and can be handled by undergraduates,” said Dabir. “It’s the perfect model to answer the questions I want to answer and expand from there.”

Next-stage research would be in cell cultures, before moving on to studies in animals.

“I owe a big part of the success of my grant proposal to my students’ hard work and their persistence,” said Dabir. “They were completely invested in the work and excited about it at the same time.”

Dabir’s students generated the original data presented in the grant application. Some have graduated and others continue to work in her lab on this project. Dabir anticipates that the majority of the research work will be performed by students during the academic year and summer.

Three of Dabir’s students are co-authors on the manuscripts resulting from the previous research. Graduating students won several awards for presentations of the data at conferences. She expects that students who work on this grant will go on to disseminate their findings at different venues.

“They develop very good critical thinking skills in the lab that pay off in the real world,” said Dabir. “They also gain excellent experience in science communication.”

Kam Dahlquist, professor of biology, who is named a key personnel on this grant, will spend six weeks over the summer working on the effort. Dabir also collaborates with a graduate student at UCLA on a radioactive experiment related to this project.

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