RIT Professor Wins $112,000 in Grants for Mitochondrial DNA Research

RIT Professor Wins $112,000 in Grants for Mitochondrial DNA Research

Moumita Das, a theoretical physicist and assistant professor at Rochester Institute of Technology’s School of Physics and Astronomy, has been awarded funding totaling $112,000 for her groundbreaking work on mitochondrial DNA and on the movement of vesicles and substances between cells (intercellular cargo transport).

Das’s ultimate research goal is to use multiscale modeling to explain how mechanical forces are sensed and transmitted from molecules to cells to tissues, and how these processes impact tissue dynamics, properties, and biological functions.

Das is a Scialog Fellow on two research teams funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. In April, the Moore Foundation, the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, and the Simons Foundation sponsored a conference titled “Scialog: Molecules Come to Life,” where about 50 early career scientists in biology and the physical sciences gathered with 15 distinguished senior scientists. The young scientists were interested in pursuing collaborative, high risk and highly impactful discovery research on untested ideas in physical cell biology.

The Scialog fellowship aims to encourage collaborations between theorists and experimental scientists, and approaches driven by theory and principles and coarse-grained modeling that are testable by experiments.

The three science philanthropies granted seed funding to six teams of 15 researchers for a total of $963,750.

Das’s combined sum of $112,000 was for her computational modeling and analytical calculations in two different projects.

One of her projects examined “Heteroplasmy: Population dynamics of mitochondria in mammalian cells” in collaboration with Douglas Weibel from the University of Wisconsin and Daniel Needleman from Harvard University.

Heteroplasmy is a new field of research that looks at the population dynamics of mitochondria in cells. Mitochondria are called the powerhouse of cells, controlling energy production, programmed cell death, and taking part in cell signaling.

Das said changes in mitochondrial DNA are likely linked to many diseases, including multiple sclerosis (MS), Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, diabetes and heart failure.

“We are studying the population dynamics of healthy and unhealthy mitochondria to see how that might control the functioning of the cell,” Das said in a news release. “Understanding how harmful changes in mitochondrial DNA accumulate over time and under different selection pressures can have a profound impact on our understanding of cell biology and the origins of some human diseases.”

The other team Das is working with is exploring “Commoditizing advanced molecular imaging techniques.” Das is collaborating with Ibrahim Cissé from MIT, Megan Valentine from University of California at Santa Barbara, and Ali Yanik from the University of California at Santa Cruz.

In this project, Das is studying molecular imaging of intercellular transport. The appropriate functioning of cells is dependent on molecular motors to carry cargo such as organelles and vesicles inside cells. The findings that may arise from this project will be used to support the design of a new imaging technique.

Das and her Scialog teams will present the preliminary results of these projects at the Scialog: Molecules Come to Life conference in April 2017 in Tucson, Arizona.

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