Read more about potential research topics for CEMB REU students at Washington University.

Is mechanical memory encoded in the microtubule cytoskeleton during plant cell growth?

Mentor: Professor Ram Dixit

The spectacular diversity of cell shapes in both plants and animals is driven by nanoscale protein polymers called microtubules. The Dixit lab studies how, in plants, microtubules drive cell shape by organizing the relatively rigid cell wall. This orchestration of wall formation by microtubule arrays supports a hypothesis that deformation of the microtubule array can be remembered by a cell by becoming locked into the cell wall.

REU Project:
The student will characterize cell wall properties of a special mutant of the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana that grows in a twisted fashion and has mutations to the microtubule cytoskeleton. The goal is to determine whether this twisted phenotype arises due to specific changes in the composition of the wall, or due to memory of the twisted microtubule pattern. The student would learn plant work, protein purification and fluorescence microscopy, plus gain experience with integrating different data sets to address a research question. The student would conduct monosaccharide and FTIR analyses to determine cell wall composition of the stems, and conduct rheological experiments to determine the mechanical properties of these stems. The student would also perform live imaging of microtubules in these mutants to determine if changes in microtubule dynamics and organization correlate to altered cell wall and growth properties.

Investigation of anisotropic actuators of cellulose nanocrystal (CNCs) nanocomposites from plant biomass 

Mentor: Professor Marcus Foston

Cellulose nanocrystal (CNC) is a highly crystalline derivative of lignocellulosic and cellulosic biomasses. This material poses extensive applications due to its availability, high surface area to volume ratio, biodegradability, and mechanical properties, including its use as a reinforcement material in protein nanocomposites. Due to the anisotropic property and random orientation of CNC in common filler matrix system, CNC-based nanocomposite has great potential of reinforcement in mechanical properties.  Our project focuses on understanding CNC-based protein nanocomposite by aligning CNC orientations in nanocomposites using magnetic fields, specifically magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in WashU medical campus to further enhance the mechanical properties. Different characterizations are used, including different composition analysis, mechanical testing and imaging.

REU Project:
The student will synthesize CNC based protein nanocomposites with magnetic alignment, and understand the filler matrix interactions in nanocomposite system. Results will test the hypothesis that magnetically aligned CNC based nanocomposites will show great enhancement of mechanical strength and properties compared with no alignment of CNC.  Organic chemistry background is strongly recommended. Experience in undergraduate chemistry lab would be useful but not required.

Do layers of charged molecules on the periphery of plant and animal cells store mechanical memory transiently?

Mentor: Professor Guy Genin

Both plant and animal cells have at their periphery a relatively thin layer of a molecule that has sticky carbohydrates attached to a protein backbone. These molecules, called proteoglycans in animals and arabinogalactans inplants, shifted from solid-like to fluid-like based upon the electrochemical environment, with monovalent cations screening out stickiness and divalent cations cross-linking carbohydrates. Understanding the regulation of these molecules may provide new insight into how both plant and animal cells can adapt their microenvironment and subsequent function in response to stress.

REU Project:
The student will work to unify our understanding of how plant and animal cells can stably manipulate proteoglycan-like molecules. We developed a computational model that predicts how proteoglycan and arabinogalactan mechanics change in response to the action of proton and calcium pumps in the cell membrane. The student will track via atomic force microscopy the mechanical responses of isolated arabinogalactans in varying ionic concentrations, and evaluate how structures such as trichomes alter their mechanics via pH changes once probed mechanically (Fig. 1). Such integrated models and experiments may uncover critical dynamics permanent, mechanically induced changes to the cell microenvironment.

Mechanobiology of grouped cells in heterogeneous matrices

Mentor: Professor Amit Pathak

During organ development and progression of diseases such as metastatic cancer, cells migrate both singly and collectively on matrices of varying stiffness. We study how grouped cells remember matrices and use stored information to navigate matrices with heterogeneous topography and confinement.

REU Project:
The student will fabricate hydrogels of at least two different stiffnesses using our technologies and perform experiments involving collective cell migration on these using breast epithelial cells and mutant cells. By analyzing time-lapse and confocal microscopy data in the context of our simplified mathematical models, the student will seek to understand the spatiotemporal variation of migration and mechanotransduction markers. Experiments will show how mutants within a healthy cell population can dominate collective memory in migration

How do kidney podocyte cells remember their function after injury?

Mentor: Professor Hani Suleiman

The answer to this question is that they usually do not, and chronic kidney disease thus has no cure. However, results in our lab using a new in vitro testing platform suggest that in certain cases, healing kidney cells can adopt muscle-like structures that help them template out new slit diaphragms and restore kidney function.

REU Project:
The student will use this new culture platform to test the hypothesis that mechanical memory inserted into these cells during mechanical loading governs the fate and disposition of these structures, thereby laying the groundwork for future interventions that apply mechanical cues to guide healing in chronic kidney disease.

Mechanosensing in aortic stenosis

Mentor: Professor Jessica Wagenseil

Mouse aorta lacking elastin in the media has high expression of the ion channel, Piezo2, a mechanosensitive membrane channel protein. We hypothesize that increased strain in the tissue due to lack of elastin is related to Piezo2 expression and downstream activation and contributes to observed changes in smooth muscle cell (SMC) phenotype.

REU Project:
contributes to observed changes in smooth muscle cell (SMC) phenotype. REU Project: The student will work with isolated SMCs and aortic tissue to investigate the effects of cell and aortic tissue strain, Piezo2 activation, and downstream signaling events.

Past Projects Archive