UMass gets grant to study workings of cells

Physicist wins $800,000 over four years

AMHERST — Physicist Jennifer Ross of the University of Massachusetts Amherst has won a four-year, $800,000 award to uncover and establish the laws for the fundamental workings of cells, which form the basis of tissues in plants, animals and humans.

“Under-standing the primary basis of how cells develop and organize can have broad implications for agriculture, energy and technology,” Ross said. She will partner with cellular biophysicist Margaret Gardel of the University of Chicago in the research, which they say offers “endless, yet measurable,” broad and positive possibilities for discovery in both life and physical sciences.

Their scientific goal is to discover the universal physical laws governing the organization of proteins and organelles inside cells. With the National Science Foundation support, Ross has built a super-resolution microscope — using carefully controlled fluorescence — that allows her and colleagues to see far more clearly than before molecules 100 times smaller than are visible using a traditional light microscope.

They will be able to watch proteins that control cell processes in real time, which is not possible using electron microscopes.

Unlike physical materials such as metals that usually exist in a solid, liquid or gas phase, living things contain active components that can change. But the rules governing biological materials and component interactions are not well understood. Living materials have nanoscale protein enzymes, or “motors,” that use energy to push and pull the components, such as fibers that act as a cell’s “bones and muscles” and play key roles in division and motion.

By methodically adjusting variables such as concentration, pressure and component volume in experiments, Ross and Gardel will attempt to reveal the “phase” or “state” of the system. In water, for example, the phase can be solid, liquid or gas. For biological matter, the phase can be a particular organization or arrangement of its filaments.

“By mapping the phases, we will understand what temperature, pressure, volume, number and level of activity leads to which organizations in cells. Further, we will know how to change from one phase to another to allow us to understand dynamic processes, such as stem cell differentiation or cell division,” Ross says.

“This research is important to discover how the cell rapidly reorganizes its interior body to respond to its exterior environment, how it goes through cell division or differentiates into a new cell type,” she said. “The project will also shed new light on the physics descriptions of systems that use energy, which is still an open, ever-evolving challenge for modern physics.”

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