The Catholic University of America

Sept. 7, 2007

$200,000 Biology Grant Enables Students to Conduct Research

Ann Corsi, associate professor of biology, and senior biology major Erin Kelly study the development of microscopic worms thanks to a $200,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health.
If all cells are made from a person's DNA, then what causes some cells to become bone cells, some muscle and some skin? And why do some cells develop "mutant" DNA that can lead to disorders like Saethre-Chotzen Syndrome, a genetic disease that causes shortened fingers and craniofacial defects such as drooping eyelids or an asymmetrical skull?

Associate Professor Ann Corsi recently received a grant from the National Institutes of Health for more than $200,000 to continue her research on those questions. The grant, an Academic Research Enhancement Award, is designed to help schools without hospitals and other large research facilities, so their students can be involved in noteworthy research.

One of the students involved in Corsi's research project is senior biology major Erin Kelly from Highland Lakes, N.J. Kelly has been working with Corsi in the biology lab in McCort-Ward Hall since her freshman year, first as a work-study student and later as a student in her classes.

"In a small school like this, the fact that you're still able to have the relationship with a professor to be able to do research that others are doing at high-level labs … you get more out of it because you're getting more attention," Kelly said.

Corsi and the students working with her are studying transcription - how genes in a cell's nucleus are copied into ribonucleic acid, or RNA, during development. The proteins that aid in transcription are called transcription factors. They are studying the "Twist" transcription factor, a helix-shaped protein that regulates an embryo's mesoderm, which becomes muscle, heart and cartilage tissues. Humans with this defective Twist suffer from Saethre-Chotzen Syndrome.

The research uses Caenorhabditis elegans, or C. elegans, a microscopic worm, to study transcription. Corsi has chosen to use the worms because they are transparent, so their cell changes can actually be viewed as they happen.

"It's remarkable how similar they are gene to gene" to humans, Corsi says. The worms also self-fertilize, making it easy to reproduce them and store them in Petri dishes in the lab.

The study has uncovered two defects in the worms that are missing the Twist. One defect results in the C. elegans not forming the muscles used for laying eggs, forcing the larvae to hatch inside the mother and eat their way out. The other defect is the lack of formation of muscles that allow the worm to expel waste, causing it to swell. If the study can find a way to treat the mutant Twist DNA in the worms, it can be an analogy for treating related genetic diseases in humans.

Students involved in the study are taking part in Corsi's Research Problems class, doing independent research or working in the lab over the summer. Corsi has also worked with local high school students doing scientific internships.

Kelly, who came to CUA as a pre-med student, says her plans have changed dramatically since she has been able to work in the lab so much. "I was overwhelmed by the research and how productive it can be," she says. Research now seems like a more worthwhile career to her than it did four years ago when she had little experience in a lab.-MFM