This month, the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, awarded four UC Berkeley scientists five-year $1.5 million grants.
Assistant professor of bioengineering and neuroscience Michael Yartsev, assistant professor of neurobiology Stephen Brohawn and assistant professor of genetics, genomics and development Elçin Ünal each received New Innovator Awards. Jacob Brunkard, research scientist at the UC Berkeley Plant Gene Expression Center, earned the Early Independence Award.
The New Innovator Award is given to early-stage investigators who propose cutting-edge research, according to the NIH official website. The Early Independence Award is designed to allow junior scientists to lead their own research instead of going through traditional postdoctoral training.
Yartsev’s project involves studying vocal learning abilities in bats — one of the only mammals capable of learning language. He said he plans to apply these findings to human language development disorders because the neuromechanisms behind them have not been fully explored.
“What we plan to do is to try and basically figure out those neuromechanisms with the hope that these efforts will also help children and humans suffering from similar disorders,” Yartsev said.
Alternatively, Brohawn proposed creating new tools to look at how biology interacts with the physical forces that are important for sensations such as pain.
“All of those sensations require cells in your bodies to sense mechanical forces and they … create electrical signals that are sent to your brain to interpret,” Brohawn said. “It’s difficult (to study) because there just aren’t ways to measure and observe these forces as they happen in real time.”
Brohawn added that he hopes that this research, through helping scientists understand at the most basic level how sensation works, can be used to improve health and treat diseases.
“He’s just fearless in coming up with experimental designs that are going to benefit all of us,” said Marla Feller, campus neurobiology division head.
Additionally, Ünal is focusing on gametogenesis — a biological process that generates reproductive cells such as eggs and sperm — to try to find ways to counteract the negative effects of aging. She said this project was inspired by how young and old cells could both produce gametes that had the same life span. This research showed that the progeny of old cells are capable of eliminating age-induced damage.
“If we can understand the way by which we can repair damage that is caused in response to aging at the cellular level, the hope is that we may reduce the risk factor for diseases,” Ünal said.
Budding yeast will be used as a model because it undergoes a similar reproductive process as gametes, but can be more easily controlled and monitored because researchers can induce gametogenesis in the yeast whenever they wish, according to Ünal.
“It’s exciting because if you figure out how these cells rejuvenate themselves we can (potentially) apply it … to our bodies,” said Douglas Koshland, campus genetics, genomics and development division head.
As a result of receiving the New Innovator award, Brunkard, who previously worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the Plant Gene Expression Center, will now have his own lab there.
He will be studying how TOR, the protein that organisms use to sense when nutrients are available, has evolved in plants.
“It’s pretty fundamental to cell biology because this is how cells decide to grow or divide or if it’s time to hunker down and conserve resources,” Brunkard said. “By understanding how plants have evolved differences in the TOR signaling network, we might gain new insight into medical efforts to control TOR activity.”
Brunkard will also be working on breeding plants that do not require as much fertilizer, which contains mostly nitrogen and is also a major expense in agriculture.