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New MacArthur fellows investigate viruses, parasites, stem cells

September 20, 2011|By Eryn Brown, Los Angeles Times / For the Booster Shots blog
  • Research by one of this year's MacArthur fellows could help millions of people like this Indonesian woman, who suffers from elephantiasis.
Research by one of this year's MacArthur fellows could help millions… (Dinda Jouhana / Los Angeles…)

Two new recipients of the MacArthur fellowships -- the so-called genius awards that provide $500,000 each to recipients to help them pursue any projects they like -- will use their prize money to delve into the inner workings of some of nature's tiniest structures: viruses and stem cells.

Elodie Ghedin, a 44-year-old genomics scientist at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, decodes the genomes of pathogens such as parasites and viruses to understand how they adapt to their hosts and evolve. To cite an example: By looking at the entire genome of the influenza virus -- studying one or two genes has been the norm -- she and colleagues saw that large numbers of flu strains can circulate in a single season.

Her team saw "that people can be infected with multiple flu lineages, which has huge implications because during co-infections the viruses can exchange genetic information," Ghedin said in an email. "This can lead to the emergence of new strains."

She said she planned to use part of her MacArthur grant to expand on her work on a parasite that can cause elephantiasis (extreme swelling of the lower torso) when it lodges in the human lymphatic system.  The parasite is transmitted by mosquitoes and threatens hundreds of millions of people in developing countries, Ghedin said. She hopes to study the unique proteins that the parasite encodes and secretes into its environment to avoid rejection by its host, she said.

"This is a source of huge untapped potential," she wrote.
Yukiko Yamashita, a stem cell biologist at the University of Michigan Medical School, studies how adult stem cells determine whether to differentiate or remain as they are to maintain stem cell numbers in an organism.  

By studying “the social life between cells” — specifically, how stem cells in fruit flies coordinate with other cells in the insects’ bodies — she hopes to understand more about how such cells avoid “going crazy.” If stem cells create new cells too quickly or in a haphazard manner, they can spawn tumors. If they differentiate too slowly, they can deplete cells and tissues.

“I’m trying to bridge the gap between stem cell biology and the rest of biology,” she said.

Yamashita, 39, said she had been interested in biology since girlhood, when she used to catch butterflies and dragonflies near her home near Kobe, Japan.

She said she would use the grant money to continue research into “out-of-the-blue ideas” that would be hard to fund otherwise because they were based on “hunches.”  

For example, she hopes to investigate further how different types of adult stem cells within a single tissue coordinate to make a functional organ.

“I’d like to see how they work together,” she said.

The MacArthur Foundation announced its 2011 MacArthur fellows Tuesday.

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