A recent dinner conversation led a local couple who are both molecular biologists and geneticists to a brilliant conclusion, and the National Science Foundation has agreed.
Darrell Killian, an assistant professor of biology at Colorado College, and his wife, Eugenia Olesnicky Killian, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, have been awarded a three-year grant of $677,091 to do what they do best. With the help of undergraduate students at their respective colleges, the pair will use small transparent worms to study how genes regulate the nervous system.
"The grant is aimed at finding a set of genes that works in simple model organisms, like worms, that are also present in humans," Darrell Killian said.
The idea for the project was born over dinner one night, when Killian discovered his wife of six years had done post-doctoral work on a gene in fruit flies.
"It was one of the genes I had worked with as a graduate student, but in a totally different context - not for its role in the nervous system but for its role in cancer and tumor biology," Killian said.
"We decided if this gene was important in one species, maybe it was important in others. We looked at two different species and found it was important to both, and we wanted to extend the project," he said.
The Killians' research will involve analyzing more than 50 genes for their involvement in dendrite development. Dendrites affect the function of neurons and are associated with disorders such as Alzheimer's disease, Down syndrome and anxiety.
Because the Killians are not associated with a medical institute, their research won't extend to humans, Killian said, but their findings could possibly motivate other researchers to do so, or to collaborate with the couple.
"Maybe through our studies, we'll have a little better understanding of how dendrites are regulated," he said. "It's not easy to predict how that will impact human medical science."
The grant will provide an opportunity for the science departments at both CC, a small, private liberal arts college, and UCCS, part of the large, public University of Colorado system, to collaborate on research, share equipment and unite undergraduate students in a common goal, Killian added.
The National Science Foundation grant is funded by taxpayer money, with the purpose of advancing science and providing student training.
"Right now, funding rates are very low and getting the grants is competitive," Killian said. "We feel very fortunate we made this happen in Colorado Springs, where there aren't a lot of molecular biology research labs."