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Biology Prof Receives $1.2 Million to Study Cells

Thanks to a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Laura A. Katz, associate professor of biological sciences, will spend the next five years researching the evolutionary history of microbial cells.

According to Katz, her research project, titled “Reconstructing Eukaryotic Phylogeny Through Multigene Analyses of Microbial Eukaryotes,” is likely to contribute to wide-ranging innovations in human healthcare, environmental stewardship and in establishing biological principles.

With the NSF funds, Katz will lead a research team at Smith, including numerous undergraduates, in the close examination of the evolutionary relationships among 200 eukaryotic microbes. (Eukaryotic cells, which contain nuclei, are distinguished from bacterial cells, which lack nuclei.) Although we are most familiar with larger eukaryotes such as plants, animals and fungi, Katz explains, the bulk of eukaryotic diversity is comprised of the microbial organisms that will be the subject of her research.

Katz’s project is the largest evolutionary study of eukaryotic microbes to date. NSF will invest a total of $3 million distributed among members of the research team.

Laura Katz (middle) with her students

Katz is the lead investigator on the project, which includes collaborators David J. Patterson, of Marine Biology Laboratories in Woods Hole, Massachusetts; Donald E. Burgess, of the American Type Culture Collection, a bio-resource center in Manassas, Virginia; and Debashish Bhattacharya and John Logsdon, both in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Iowa.

Many human diseases, including malaria and amoebic dysentery, are caused by eukaryotic microbes, Katz says. “Understanding the evolutionary history of disease-causing microbes will yield important insights as physicians choose among drugs to treat disease.”

Also, the bulk of the production of earth’s oxygen is derived from microbial activity in oceans. Katz's research will illuminate the biological diversity of these microbes. Her study will also shed new light on cellular innovations that arose during the evolution of life on earth.

Most of Katz’s research on eukaryotic cells will take place in her laboratory in Burton Hall. The college already owns most of the equipment necessary for molecular studies of microbial cells, she notes.

Katz involves numerous Smith undergraduates in her research. She teaches courses on microbiology, evolutionary biology and biological diversity.

Katz is also the recipient of two other NSF grants. In 2001, she received a five-year, $412,000 CAREER Award from the foundation, given to junior faculty members to support early career development. And in 2002 she received a three-year, $217,600 collaborative grant to study microbial diversity in oceans.

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