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Fifth Annual Wehner Research Symposium and Darwin Day Celebration

The event featured student research and a keynote by Dr. Corrie Moreau, Cornell University

Posted in: Biology, Research

Our Fifth Annual Wehner Research Symposium/Darwin Day Celebration was held Feb. 17, 2021 on Zoom. One hundred attendees registered for this symposium, made possible by funding from the estate of Madelon Wehner (née Grimm, MSU Class of 1939). The research symposium featured keynote speaker Dr. Corrie Moreau, who spoke on her career as a rainforest explorer and world-famous ant researcher. Dr. Moreau recounted her early fascination with insects as well as her research accomplishments in understanding the gut microbiota of diverse ant species.

Dean Scott Kight kicked off the symposium with remarks on Darwin’s insights, which continue to guide and inform biologists. Five Wehner Scholars (Gerard Nasser, Emily Stone, Stephanie Getto, Christopher Cerf, and Paolo Turano) gave oral presentations describing their biology research at Montclair State University, on diverse topics ranging from the effects of environmental conditions on viruses, bacteria, and local turtle species, to computational models of the firing of baroreceptor neurons, to the effect of coconut oil on liver disease. Eleven students (Asja Alic, Janet Brenya, Katherine Chavarria, Kenneth Hamel, Charles Ezenwanne, Yandis Toyos, Alexandra Avrutis, Martha Mahady, Bethany Olive, Abigail Straus, and Adam Parker) gave poster presentations of their research and discussed their findings with the attendees.

Dr. Dirk Vanderklein, Chair of the Biology Department, announced the new recipients of the Wehner Research Scholarships for 2021 (Arianna Diaz and Nathan Klunk), and Dean Lora Billings gave her enthusiastic perspective on ongoing student research at Montclair State University to close out the day. The symposium was organized by Dr. Matthew Aardema, Dr. Colette Feehan, and Dr. Robert O’Hagan.

Keynote Address by Dr. Moreau

How I became a rainforest explorer: Ant genomes to microbiomes

Dr. Corrie Moreau is the Martha N. and John C. Moser Professor of Arthropod Biosystematics and Biodiversity at Cornell University in the Departments of Entomology and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in Ithaca, New York, USA. She is also the Director and Curator of the Cornell University Insect Collection with over 7 million specimens. Dr. Moreau earned her Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology from Harvard University and was a Miller Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley. Before this she completed her undergraduate and Master’s degrees at San Francisco State University. Dr. Moreau was elected a Fellow of the Entomological Society of America in 2020, an AAAS Fellow in 2018, a Kavli Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences USA in 2016, a National Geographic Explorer in 2014, and highlighted as a Woman of Impact by the National Geographic Society in 2018. In addition, she has two species named after her!

Dr. Moreau’s research on the evolution and diversification of ants and their symbiotic bacteria couples field-based research with molecular and genomic tools to address the origin of species and how co-evolved systems benefit both partners. Also, she pursues questions on the role of biogeography, trait evolution, and symbiosis in shaping macroevolutionary processes to better understand broad-scale evolutionary patterns of life. In addition to her passion for scientific research, Dr. Moreau is also engaged with efforts to promote science communication and increase diversity in the sciences.

Student Presentations

Wehner Scholar Research Oral Presentation Abstracts

Effects Of Differing Environmental Conditions On Bacteriophage Jenika

Gerard Nasser and Dr. Kirsten Monsen

The dynamic role of bacteriophage in different environmental areas poses important questions about viral interactions with and control of bacteria. Bacteriophage play a vital role in the evolutionary track of bacteria (León & Bastías 2015). The evolutionary role of bacteriophage takes place through lysogenic conversion, transduction, mediated gene transfer, and the exertion of selective pressures (León & Bastías 2015 and Ogunseitan et al. 1990). The objective of this research revolves around conditional gene expression given isolated changes in environmental conditions, as well as accompanying morphological changes. This research will look at the growth curves of the host and the bacteriophage Jenika using optical density and titer respectively. Morphology will be checked using electron microscopy, and any possible changes in RNA expression will be observed using qPCR. Data collection is still underway. The outcomes of this experiment will provide a glance into how bacteriophage morphology and gene expression become affected as a result of differing environmental conditions. If changes in gene expression and/or phage morphology are observed, future research could be conducted on how and why these changes are occurring in response to differing environmental conditions.

Understanding Bacterial Assemblages Across A Nutrient Gradient Over Winter Months

Emily Stone and Dr. Matthew Schuler

An unforeseen outcome of industrialization, urbanization, and anthropogenic activities has resulted in high nutrient concentrations from both point and non-point pollution sources into aquatic systems. This in turn has caused water quality to diminish, biodiversity to decrease, and biogeochemical cycles to fluctuate. A large extent of understanding how human activity affects ecosystems focuses on human health or conservation efforts; little attention is given to the bacterial assemblages responsible for maintaining ecosystem health and stability. The connections between anthropogenic activity and bacterial communities are frequently overlooked. Sequence analysis of the 16S ribosomal RNA gene is often used to characterize bacterial species and is useful in diagnostic assays. Analyzing water quality will help draw conclusions on which nutrients or pollutants are contributing to the imbalance of bacterial communities. This ongoing project aims to understand how bacterial assemblages change along a natural nutrient gradient over winter months in northern New Jersey.

Investigating The Potential Role Of Eutrophication And Cyanohabs On An Ulcerative Shell
Disease In Northern Red-Bellied Cooters (Pseudemys Rubriventris)
Stephanie Getto and Dr. Meiyin Wu

Following reports of an ulcerative shell disease (USD) of unknown origin in red bellied cooters (Pseudemys rubiventris) in the spring of 2019 at two Salem County lakes with suspected cyanobacterial harmful algal blooms (CyanoHABs), phytoplankton community composition, cyanotoxin levels, nutrient levels, and other various water quality metrics were measured at multiple sites in which affected individuals were found. These study sites were selected from Daretown Lake and Elmer Lake, and were compared against a control location with a healthy population of red-bellieds located in Stockton, NJ. This study serves as part of a larger, NJDEP led investigation into the USD affecting P. rubiventris, and aims to investigate a possible correlation between the disease’s emergence and the suspected CyanoHAB conditions of the two lakes in which affected individuals were found. Preliminary results indicate that when compared against control sites, study sites where the USD is prevalent show higher cell counts, presence of measurable microcystins and saxitoxins, and dominance of cyanobacterial taxa within the phytoplankton community. In all three sites, total phosphorous content seems to be the driving force for phycocyanin levels and high cyanobacterial cell counts.

Predicting Ion Channel Dysfunction In Hypertension With Matlab Through Analysis Of Abnormal Action Potential Firing In Baroreceptor Neurons

Christopher Cerf and Dr. Vladislav Snitsarev

Autonomic regulation of blood pressure is mediated by nodose baroreceptors which are severely impaired in hypertension. Nodose baroreceptor dysfunction, as a decrease in excitability, leads to uncontrolled surges of blood pressure and results in heart failure and stroke. Through mathematical modeling of neurons in MATLAB, it is possible to estimate ion channel dysfunction in these nodose baroreceptors. By comparing experimental results to normotensive subjects, it will be possible to predict what changes in receptor physiology can contribute to dysfunction of nodose baroreceptors.

The model was validated through manipulation of ion channel conductances seen in response to the application of natural inhibitors and toxins in vivo. The model perfectly predicts the activity of neurons exposed to tetrodotoxin; which acts upon the fast tetrodotoxin-sensitive sodium ion channels. As well, the model mimics the administration of 4-Aminopyridine and enhances action potential firing both in our model through reducing A- and D- type potassium channel conductances and in patients with neurodegenerative diseases.

Moving towards our goal, we manually fitted an experimentally obtained trace from a nodose neuron to the general mathematical model. Currently, we are working on a mathematical algorithm to minimize the difference between the model and experimental trace to find the best fit.

Coconut Oil Contributes To Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) In A Gender Dependent Manner

Paolo Turano and Dr. Carlos Molina

Obesity is one of the leading health problems in today’s society. According to the “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” 93.3 million adults, as well as 13.7 million children and adolescents, were considered obese as of 2016 in the US alone. Obesity has been shown to cause a wide array of diseases, including nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), thanks to the accumulation of triglycerides in hepatocytes. NAFLD is currently the most common chronic liver disease and affects about a quarter of the population worldwide. Although one’s genetic predisposition may put them more at risk of becoming obese, one’s diet plays a critical role. With obesity leading to so many health problems, various fads that promise fast weight loss, such as coconut oil-based products, are rising in popularity. Although coconut oil has been thought to help in weight loss and maintain a healthy fat/muscle ratio, there is no conclusive evidence that it can do so. This study aimed to investigate the effects of coconut oil, through the use of C57BI/6 mice, on body weight and composition along with its contribution to weight loss and weight management. Extra focus on liver physiology and its potential pathologies was also made.

Student Research Poster Abstracts

Building Excitable Cell Models

Asja Alic and Dr. Eric Forgoston

We consider the Hodgkin-Huxley model which describes the formation and propagation of action potential in excitable cells. The model consists of a set of nonlinear ordinary differential equations which are numerically solved using an adaptive Runge-Kutta solver in the Python programming language. The results show that the model is capable of accurately describing experimental results: duration and form of action potentials, amplitude of the spike, oscillations, and ionic changes (sodium and potassium). The model can easily be extended to include additional ionic channels. This enables one to study the effects of both A-type and C-type nodose sensory neurons as well the effects of known ion channel blockers, such as tetrodotoxin which is found in pufferfish, Lidocaine which is a local anesthetic, and scorpion toxins.

The Role Of Affect In Self-Deception Following A Disruption Of The Medial Prefrontal Cortex

Janet Brenya and Dr. Julian Keenan

The Medial Prefrontal Cortex (MPFC) is a vital component that underlies human social functions, specifically self-awareness, self-enhancement and social monitoring. The association of the MPFC with self and social monitoring may influence positive self-image, thus buffering negative affect. In addition, we have found that the MPFC may also have an influence on self-deception because disruption of the MPFC or decrease activity in the MPFC leads to more honest replies, thus a decrease in self-deception. In correlation, separate studies have found that a decrease in MPFC activity also results in a decrease in affect. The current study investigated mood and self-deception in response to TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation) delivered to the MPFC. While participants rated their mood and current emotional state, TMS, as well as Sham TMS was delivered to the MPFC. The results indicated that disruption of the MPFC leads to a reduced mood and self-deception.

Addressing Possible Racial Factors In Neuroimaging

Katherine Chavarria and Dr. Julian Keenan

Due to differences in structure and texture, hair type can have a potential effect in scalp-based neuroimaging, including Electroencephalography (EEG), Event-related Potential (ERP), Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), and Repetitive TMS (rTMS). Coarse and curly hair are over-represented in historically discriminated minorities and it has been suspected that this presents a challenge to scalp-based neuroimaging. Employing Qualtrics, we developed a survey that queried individuals with expertise in the use of EEG, ERP, TMS, and rTMS several questions on different factors that could affect scalp-based neuroimaging, such as hair type, race, hair quantity, and gender. Although the data is preliminary, responses indicated that hair type did have an effect and presented issues. When asked how these issues were fixed, responses indicated that there were no methods for correcting these issues. One participant directly identified cornrows, a hairstyle of African origin, as a complication. These data demonstrate that current scalp-based neuroimaging methods are not well adapted to individuals with coarse, curly hair which accounts for many minority participants. We will therefore be testing two different braiding styles, which we presume will allow more access to the scalp, and comparing the resulting impedance values to no braiding method.

The Effects Of A Bridge Impoundment On Macroinvertebrate Communities In A Nj Stream

Kenneth Hamel and Dr. Meiyin Wu

The effects of bridges and smaller impoundments on freshwater habitat and water quality is an under-researched aspect in the field of urban ecology. This study examines how a smaller bridge affects macroinvertebrate taxa abundance between upstream and downstream areas of the impoundment. It was found that the bridge slows water velocity and increases sedimentation at the outlet, which reflects in greater proportions of silt and mud benthic cover. In addition, this increase in sedimentation was correlated with a decrease in macroinvertebrate biodiversity, EPT abundances, and average PTVs of collected taxa in comparison to upstream areas. This implies that bridges may still have impacts on water quality and macroinvertebrate communities similarly to dams and culverts, which may negatively affect the availability of food for local fish and terrestrial species, as well as decrease the ecological services that macroinvertebrates provide.

In-Vitro Assessment Of Methylsulfonylmethane Cell Regulation Via miRNA Profiling And Cell Health Assays

Charles Ezenwanne and Dr. Ann Marie DiLorenzo

Methylsulfonylmethane has been used for years as a dietary supplement for
numerous benefits, one of them being it’s Anti-Inflammatory and prevention of the over-stress of immune cells. Inflammation has been found to link to certain types of cancers such as colorectal cancer.. MicroRNA are small Non-coding RNAs that play key roles in the regulation of gene expression. It fine-tunes the expression as much as 30%. It acts during the post transcription level. Studies have been discovered in using miRNA-based therapy as a way to combat cancer, due to miRNA’s role in the regulation of tumor suppressors. Studies also show miRNA has a role in cancer prevention, because Specific miRNA is found to be upregulated and downregulated when cells go into metastasis. Using this information, I’m going to test specific miRNA and see if these same ones are upregulated and downregulated when treated with Methylsulfonylmethane. My goal is to further research Methylsulfonylmethane’s (DMSO2) cancer fighting properties via miRNA profiling.

This research is of value because miRNA is still currently studied and may lead to new innovation in cancer research in which cancer is still a growing issue globally. Methylsulfonylmethane has already proven to have anti-inflammatory and prevent over-stress of immune cells, we can further explore this beneficial supplement and its possible role in cancer therapy. The main question of this study is Can Methylsulfonylmethane play a role in cancer research?

Using The Roundworm <em>C. Elegans</em> To Study The Function Of Rpi1l1, A Gene Implicated In The Human Disease Retinitis Pigmentosa

Yandis Toyos, Kaylee Cuyuche, and Dr. Robert O’Hagan

Neurons in C. elegans could provide a basis for understanding the function of genes associated with neurodegenerative diseases. In our lab, we focus specifically on neuronal microtubules and their MAPs (Microtubule Associated Proteins), a class of proteins that is not well understood. Mutations in RP1 cause retinitis pigmentosa, while mutations in RPI1L1 (“RP1-like-1”) cause occult macular dystrophy. Both diseases result in progressive blindness. RP1 and RPI1L1 proteins are members of the doublecortin/DCX family of MAPs. To understand the function of RP1L1, we constructed a recombinant transgene rpil-1::gfp to determine its localization. We used epifluorescence microscopy to find that rpil-1 is expressed in a subset of ciliated sensory neurons. We have obtained a mutant C. elegans strain in which the rpil-1 gene has an early stop codon, abolishing its function. We plan to determine if this mutant has a neurodegenerative phenotype in C. elegans that parallels human disease.

Determining The Relationship Between Microtubule Glutamylation And The Microtubule-Associated Proteins In <em>C. Elegans</em>

Alexandra Avrutis, Nicole Ross, and Dr. Robert O’Hagan

Tau, a microtubule-associated protein (MAP), is implicated in the development of Alzheimer’s disease and other “tauopathies” in humans. Tau is thought to bind and stabilize microtubules (MTs) in axons. In vitro, Tau binding to MTs is regulated by glutamylation, a post-translational modification found on tubulin. To better understand this relationship, we are examining PTL-1, a Tau homolog in the nematode C. elegans. We created transgenic animals expressing PTL-1 fused with fluorescent proteins to visualize it in vivo. Epifluorescence and confocal microscopy showed that PTL-1 is expressed in neurons and, like mammalian Tau, localizes in axons, but not dendrites. We also observe that PTL-1 is highly enriched in cilia. We are observing the localization of PTL-1 in deletion alleles of genes encoding glutamylases and deglutamylases, which regulate the glutamylation state of MTs. If MT glutamylation regulates axonal or ciliary enrichment of PTL-1, we expect that these alleles would lead to abnormal localization. This will ultimately help us determine the roles of MT glutamylation in the development of “tauopathies” and whether enzymes that regulate MT glutamylation could be potential targets in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases.

Loosestrife And Water

Martha Mahady and Dr. Dirk Vanderklein

The purpose of this investigation was to determine the effect of soil moisture on the growth of Lythrum spp: purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) and winged loosestrife (Lythrum alatum). Wetlands provide essential ecosystem services such as water purification and flood control. Purple loosestrife, an herbaceous perennial, has spread in wetlands throughout the eastern United States and Canada, becoming a serious threat to the biodiversity of wetlands. It forms dense stands, crowding out native plants, resulting in loss of habitat for native plant and animal species and changes in nutrient flows within the wetland ecosystem. Seeds for purple loosestrife from Sussex County NJ, USA, and the United Kingdom, and winged loosestrife from the Midwest region of the USA were grown under greenhouse conditions and supplied different amounts of water during the growing season. Purple loosestrife plants from Sussex County seeds had lower height and mass at the least amount of water supplies but grew more with the medium and higher water levels. Purple loosestrife plants grown from seeds from the UK had greater height in the medium and wet conditions than in the dry condition. Winged loosestrife plants from Midwest USA seeds showed lower growth in height and mass in the dry and medium conditions than in the wet condition. These results indicate that purple loosestrife is able to grow well with less water than winged loosestrife, while still growing well in the wet conditions in which winged loosestrife grew best. The ability to grow well in a wider range of conditions may contribute to its invasiveness.

A Stinging New Look At Venom: <em>Chrysaora Chesapeakei</em>

Bethany Olive, Dr. John J. Gaynor, and Dr. Paul A.X. Bologna

The Chrysaora Chesapeakei is a jellyfish that lives in Barnegat Bay. Due to a degraded water quality, they have become a problem. In this study, a bioinformatics analysis of the transcriptome was primarily used. Gene Ontology values allowed for putative venom proteins to be identified. Over 200 venom components were identified, and a number of them were able to be identified in other Cnidarians. Venom proteins that are thought to be unique to this organism are chrysaoralin, hyaluronidase, and disintegrin. Studying their transcriptome and subsequently their venom components will allow for many problems to be solved. These findings will bring improved treatment for jellyfish stings, as well as advance the current knowledge that exists about Cnidarians and their venom.

Lie Detection In Relation To Menstrual Cycle Phase

Abigail Straus, Lillia Savitska, Janet Brenya, Katherine Chavarria, and Dr. Julian Keenan

The menstrual cycle is an integral part of human life yet much about it is not understood, including if and how it affects behavior and cognition. By studying these aspects, we can gain important knowledge into how the menstrual cycle may influence results of other psychological studies. The reason many researchers believe behavior and cognition might change across the cycle is related to evolutionary theory, specifically that during ovulation women would have better fitness if they could select a good partner. This study examines whether the menstrual cycle can affect women’s ability to detect lies. This ability could better enable women to choose an honest, long-term partner, increasing their offspring’s chances of survival and success as having a second parent present could give them more security. Thirty six participants were presented with videos and asked to determine if the video subjects were lying or telling the truth. They were also asked to give general information about their cycle to determine if each woman was a potential ovulator. No significant results were found between lie detection and ovulation. Future studies should include a larger sample size to increase validity.

A Metagenomic Comparison Of Genetic Sequencing Using Targeted 16s And Shotgun NGS On Benthic Dna

Adam Parker and Dr. Rob Meredith

Bacterial identification has been an important area of research over the last 150 years. Advances in genetic sequencing technology have made it the norm to molecularly identify bacteria. Metagenomic studies look to identify genetic material present in an environmental sample. Most metagenomic bacterial studies utilize Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) technology and targeted amplification of the 16S V3/V4 hyper-variable region for species level identification.

However, there is growing interest in whole genome shotgun metagenomics as a more inclusive method. Shotgun sequencing is where large fragments of DNA are sheared into smaller fragments and then randomly sequenced and subsequently reassembled using bioinformatics. Shotgun sequencing avoids the pitfalls of targeted PCR amplification such as PCR bias (some organisms amplify better than others or fail to amplify at all due to primer mismatch). Therefore, a comparative study of targeted 16S rRNA amplification and the shotgun based approach is appropriate. For this study we chose to look at benthic samples collected from four different Barnegat Bay, NJ localities.