Biologists to study prions, embryos thanks to NIH grants

Two assistant professors of biology at the University of Oregon have landed prized early-stage research grants, funding their projects for the next five years.

David Garcia and Daniel Grimes have been awarded $1.84 million and $1.83 million, respectively, in Maximizing Investigators’ Research Awards from the National Institutes of Health. 

The awards are distinguished five-year grants for early-stage investigators that allow researchers more flexibility and stability in their research, which the NIH hopes will improve productivity and lead to scientific breakthroughs. The funding will allow Garcia’s research, “Prion-Based Regulation of RNA Modifying Enzyme Activities,” and Grimes’ research, “Cell-cell Communication Mediated by Fluid Flows” to continue with the aid of undergraduate and doctoral students.

With his research, Garcia examines the molecular activities of abnormal, or prion, proteins, how they affect RNA, how they affect which genes are turned on or off, and what their physical structure looks like. 

Garcia’s lab works on budding yeast, the same type used to make bread and wine. Remarkably, these single-celled fungi share many genes and cellular behaviors with human cells, so they speed up the team’s discovery process.

“But they also smell good, reminiscent of foods we naturally enjoy,” he said. “I bet our lab is one of the best smelling labs on campus.”

The NIH funding has allowed Garcia and his team to dive more deeply into the effects of prion proteins. Because of the challenge of discovering prion proteins, understanding of how they can be beneficial to life is very limited. Garcia’s research hopes to add to the understanding of this phenomenon and help explain prion proteins’ role in evolution. 

“Prions don’t reveal themselves easily,” Garcia said. “I wish identifying them was as simple as identifying a genetic mutation, but it’s far from that. We have to remain a bit adventurous and at times change our route as we go.”

Garcia’s lab is always looking for talented undergraduate and doctoral students to join their research team. Visit his website for more information. 

Grimes’ lab will be using its new funding to research how embryos decide which way is left and which way is right, The positioning is critical, as it determines how the organs will be positioned as the embryo grows. 

The team uses the left-right patterning system in zebrafish and advanced genetic and imaging approaches to understand the fundamental mechanisms cells use to generate, sense and interpret fluid flows. 

“The most rewarding part of my research occurs when members of the lab discover something new,” he said. “That stimulates fresh ideas, conversations, experiments and lots of energy and excitement amongst the team. Bonus if the new discovery was unexpected and shakes up our thinking.”

Hal Sadofsky, the divisional dean of natural sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences, was excited to see Garcia and Grimes join a growing group of other assistant professors in various departments that have received major awards from the NIH. 

“This is great news for the Institute of Molecular Biology, the biology department and the university, and of course for David and Dan,” he said. “One of the fantastic things about (Maximizing Investigators’ Research) awards particularly is that they are meant to support science from people who have shown the ability to do great work, so these awards are endorsements by the scientific community of both what Garcia and Grimes have each accomplished and what can be expected from them in the future.”

—By Alyson Johnston, College of Arts and Sciences