Unraveling the Mysteries of the Cell

Grants will support biology professor’s research on methods of preventing Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other diseases

Two grants totaling nearly $3 million have been awarded to Assistant Professor Maria E. Solesio in the Department of Biology at Rutgers University in Camden. Her research aims to elucidate the role of mitochondrial dysfunction in neurodegenerative diseases and ultimately improve treatment options for common and severe conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

The grants—$949,958 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and more than $1.9 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—will support Solesio in her research to understand how mitochondria—the parts of the cell where most of an organism’s energy is produced—become dysregulated when stress is present. When mitochondria malfunction, cell activities are disrupted, and this can cause cells to die. The energy from mitochondria is critical to functions ranging from the movement of bacteria to the heartbeats of mammals.

Maria Solesio, assistant professor in the department of biology

Maria Solesio, assistant professor in the department of biology

“This chain of deleterious effects is well known,” Solesio said. “But the exact mechanisms that drive mitochondria to dysregulate and eventually fail under stress conditions are not yet fully understood in mammals.”

Solesio added that an inorganic polyphosphate (polyP) could play an important role in these mechanisms. “PolyP has a structure that is similar to ATP (adenosine triphosphate, the source of energy for use and storage at the cellular level), and because multiple studies show that mitochondria contain large amounts of polyP, it is possible that this compound regulates the main process of producing ATP.”

Solesio will carry out experiments to better understand the ATP production process. She believes her findings will further the understanding of many plant and animal conditions where mitochondrial health and the generation of energy are impaired. Her long-term goal is to unravel the mechanisms driving mitochondrial dysfunction and failure in human disease. Her hope is to propose polyP as a new and promising pharmacological tool for neurodegenerative conditions where this specific energy dysregulation is a factor.

Solesio is committed to not only having her grant awards increase the knowledge of mitochondrial biology, but she will also be broadening the research workforce. Solesio is including Rutgers–Camden undergraduate students from under-resourced communities as lab assistants, as well as providing these students with the opportunity to co-author scientific reviews before graduation.

“Dr. Solesio’s research has implications for understanding and potential treatments of a wide range of plant and animal diseases. By being awarded grants such as these, Dr. Solesio can engage graduate and undergraduate students directly in cutting-edge research, which allows students to work side by side with leaders in the field,” said Vice Chancellor for Research Thomas S. Risch. “Thus, our students at Rutgers University in Camden not only can participate by performing research on campus, they also are taking classes from world-class researchers that are creating new knowledge in their field of study, which contributes to their world-class education.”

Creative Design: Douglas Shelton

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