March 1, 2022
Kuehner Receives Second National Science Foundation Grant to Support Undergraduate Research

Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Jason Kuehner was recently awarded a 3-year, $372,026.00 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Research in Undergraduate Institutions (RUI) to examine control of DNA traffic and regulation of gene expression.

The winning proposal was supported by recent graduates Shane Mitchell '21 and Maria Amodeo '21. Mitchell played a pivotal role in data collection and won a prestigious Goldwater Scholarship award while working in Dr. Kuehner’s lab at Emmanuel. Amodeo provided much of the preliminary data used to support this grant application and won a TriBeta Regional Conference Award for her research presentation in 2021.

“We have been working on this research project since 2015, when I was awarded an NSF Research Opportunity Award to work with Emmanuel students over the summer in Dr. Claire Moore’s lab at Tufts University. The results of that work were published and gave us some new ideas to test moving forward,” said Dr Kuehner.

When explaining the research taking place in his lab for this project, he explained, “I like to use the analogy that our lab studies cellular stop signals that control DNA traffic and regulate gene expression. However, other times DNA traffic takes an early exit and cancels the trip.”

Ultimately, life depends on the information stored in DNA, which is expressed into RNA and proteins that perform cellular functions. The first step of gene expression is transcription, where RNA polymerase reads DNA to synthesize RNA. As RNA polymerase moves along DNA, it can be interrupted by regulatory stop signals that terminate transcription prematurely. Researchers like Dr. Kuehner and those in his lab here at Emmanuel are interested in finding out why that is. Because the underlying mechanism and selectivity remains unclear, there is the chance that early transcription stoppage by way of downregulation of gene expression can occur widely in cells ranging from bacteria to human.

Kuehner’s research lab is looking to genetically characterize cellular stop signals in the hopes to better control DNA traffic, namely by making mutations and figuring out how and when DNA traffic “runs the red light.” It turns out that this type of early exit gene regulation was identified in bacteria over 40 years ago. It was a common misconception that it was limited to only bacteria, but it has recently become apparent in other cell types, including humans.

When asked about initial goals, Amodeo, now a research technician at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, noted that the work they were doing was interrupted by the pandemic of COVID-19. “That’s where we started to delve into the bioinformatics world. We were looking for genes in the entire yeast genome that regulate their expression in this way. Our goals were to identify new attenuator genes, or genes that aren’t always expressed, and determine what type of regulatory elements are important for their suppression.”

Reflecting on the impact of this award, she commented, “It’s remarkable to know that here at Emmanuel the funding from a grant like this directly impacts the undergraduate experience. It’s an incredible opportunity for undergrads to have that in-depth research experience.”

Mitchell, now working on the molecular mechanisms of Alzheimer's at Mass General Hospital commented, “Not only did Dr. Kuehner introduce me to what it was like to work in an academic lab setting, but the experience also allowed me to grow closer to my professors, as well as my fellow lab members.”

Current students in Dr. Kuehner’s lab will have opportunities to present their work at national research conferences and co-author publications. This research will also be incorporated into a core undergraduate biology laboratory course, mobilizing 50 additional students to validate gene targets. Course resources will be shared broadly so additional educational communities may contribute and benefit.

Dr. Jason Kuehner in a laboratory at Emmanuel College Dr. Jason Kuehner

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