THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME. Prof. Derek Applewhite [right] won an NSF grant to study mechanisms of morphogenesis.
THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME. Prof. Derek Applewhite [right] won an NSF grant to study mechanisms of morphogenesis.

Shape-shifting Cells, Zebrafish Eyes, & Silly Putty

The NSF makes three big grants to Reed professors.

September 1, 2017

Cellular Shape-shifters

The way an organism takes shape—known as morphogenesis—remains one of the central puzzles of biology. Prof. Derek Applewhite [biology 2014–] and Prof. Anna Ritz [biology 2015–] won a $589,000 grant from the NSF to lead a project investigating the mysterious signalling system that turns a blob of cytoplasm into a stomach or a spinal cord.

The Reed project will focus on nonmuscle myosin II (NMII), a key protein that governs the shape of a cell. The researchers are seeking to better understand the sophisticated chain of command that switches NMII off and on. This chain begins with the architectural blueprints encoded in a cell’s DNA and ultimately generates the microscopic filaments that change the cell’s shape. For example, NMII triggers a process known as apical constriction, which turns round cells into wedge-shaped cells, beginning the process of forging the tubular formations that become spinal cords and gastrointestinal tracts.

Eye of the Zebrafish

Prof. Kara Cerveny [biology 2012–] won $429,000 from the NSF to advance her research on cell behavior inside the eye of the zebrafish. Prof. Cerveny’s research will focus on understanding the specific mechanisms employed within the retina that govern growth, tissue size, and composition.

“I’m fascinated by the development of the nervous system,” she says. “One of the things I hope to discover is how at precise times and in specific locations, seemingly identical embryonic cells are encouraged to generate all the different types of neurons required for us to perceive our surroundings.”

Stretching a Silly-putty World

Imagine an elastic, rubbery world where baseballs can be stretched into spaghetti and coffee cups squeezed into wedding rings. Where our familiar intuitions about shapes, points, and proximity are given rigorous mathematical definitions—and then turned inside out, distorted into an alien universe of dazzling symmetries and dark infinities.

Welcome to homotopy theory, a peculiar domain where mathematicians use the relatively well-established tools of algebra to peek inside the fantastic terrain of topology.

Prof Kyle Ormsby [math 2014–] and Prof. Angélica Osorno [math 2013–] won an NSF grant of $368,000 to explore the emergent field of homotopy (pronounced HOME-uh-topy), which is populated by strange mathematical entities such as Hopf fibrations, Burnside rings, and infinite loop space machines.

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