For the public: How does this research relate to the problems of the world?

Why do we study fungi and large cells?

We study cells with many nuclei (the compartment that houses the genome) because these cells face special challenges in growth and division due to their size and lifestyles. These specialized cells are common in the natural world and include many pathogenic fungi, our bones, blood, cancer cells and the mammalian placenta. Fungi threaten food supplies and crops, are responsible for large-scale amphibian deaths across the planet and are responsible for infections in immunocompromised humans. We are interested in fungi in the marine environment not only to find new biological problems but because they may be relevant for cycles of plankton growth and decomposition that is important for carbon cycling. Our work on the cell biology of large cells with many nuclei like fungi, muscle and placenta helps us understand the normal behavior of these kinds of cells so that we can be better informed to solve the problems that arise from abnormal function in these cells.

Shown is a single fungal cell growing under the microscope. The white spots are individual nuclei, where the genome is located.

How does this work relate to neurodegenerative disease, aging and pregnancy disorders?

One unexpected discovery from our work on large cells with many nuclei is that protein sequences that have traditionally been associated with pathologies like neurodegenerative disease have a normal function to create special compartments within the cytoplasm of cells. Our work combined with many other labs has shown that the same physical processes that lead to pathological aggregates in cells may actually be used for normal cell physiology. Macromolecules in cells can exist in different states such as gas, liquid, or solid just like water. As cells are stressed, age or are exposed to certain environmental conditions, the molecules move from a more liquid-state to a more solid state. Understanding how cells can prevent this transition is important in understanding how these diseases progress.

fungal cell

Fungal cell where liquid droplets of RNA and protein have condensed in the cytoplasm.

What is the link between the cell biology of large cells and pregnancy diseases?

For every human, one of our first tasks in life is building our placenta. This transient organ is essential for human life. It serves to protect the fetus from both microbes and the maternal immune system, exchange gas and nutrients with the mother and makes critical hormones, all the while growing in size as the fetus grows. When the placenta doesn’t grow or is malformed, it leads to complications like miscarriage and pre-eclampsia. We study how this organ grows and divides the many tasks needed to sustain pregnancy and grow a human.

Placenta cells growing, dividing and fusing.

Department of Cell Biology

Duke University School of Medicine