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Sources: Carol Shanklin, 785-532-7927, shanklin@k-state.edu;
Mauricio Montero Astua, mmontero@k-state.edu; Erica Cain, ericah@k-state.edu;
and Vinod K. Mony, vinodkm@k-state.edu
Website: http://www.k-state.edu/grad/sarachekaward/welcome.htm
News release prepared by: Beth Bohn, 785-532-2535, bbohn@k-state.edu

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

WICHITA BIOLOGISTS ADVANCE RESEARCH CAREERS OF THREE GRAD STUDENTS WITH FELLOWSHIP, TRAVEL AWARDS

MANHATTAN -- A fellowship and travel awards from Wichita biologists Alvin and RosaLee Sarachek are boosting the research careers of three Kansas State University doctoral candidates.

Mauricio Montero Astua, doctoral candidate in plant pathology, Costa Rica, is receiving the $15,000 Alvin and RosaLee Sarachek Predoctoral Honors Fellowship in Molecular Biology. Erica L. Cain, Wamego, and Vinod K. Mony, India, both doctoral candidates in biology, are receiving $1,000 Sarachek scientific travel awards.

All three awards were based on exceptional scholastic and research achievements.

Montero Astua will use the fellowship to start his teaching career and research program at the University of Costa Rica.

"The Sarachek Fellowship will have a significant impact on my early career at the University of Costa Rica because the school has limited start-up resources, and opportunities for extramural funding are limited," he said.

Montero Astua, whose major professor is Anna Whitfield, associate professor of plant pathology, is researching the tomato spotted wilted virus, which causes reduced crop yields. The virus is spread plant-to-plant by the insect thrips. He said one way to control its spread in the field is by interfering with its acquisition by thrips.

"Previous work showed that a modified virus protein, Gn-S, binds to thrips and blocks transmission of the virus," he said. "I studied the cell localization and interactions of this protein in plants by fluorescent microscopy. Additionally, I generated transgenic tomato plants that produce Gn-S and selected a set of plants with different protein expression levels. The plants are being used to determine the effect of Gn-S on virus transmission when thrips feed on these plants."

Montero Astua also is determining if the protein has an effect on virus replication and particle assembly. This research would provide growers with a novel tool for management of plant disease and contribute to the understanding and control of other viruses transmitted by insects.

Cain will use the Sarachek travel award to attend the annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology in December. Cain, whose major professor is Alexander Beeser, assistant professor of biology, studies the dual specificity phosphatase 12 gene, known as DUSP-12. The gene is amplified in many cancers, but its cellular function and role in cancer, if any, is unknown.

"Our lab has demonstrated that overexpression of DUSP-12in human cells can increase cell motility, cell survival and the expression of two cancer relevant genes," Cain said. "This suggests that DUSP-12may promote cancer development and/or progression, and we're currently investigating the mechanism by which DUSP-12 can promote these cancer properties in cells. The discovery that DUSP-12 can promote cancer relevant properties in cells increases our understanding of cancer cell biology and exposes a potential therapeutic target for a variety of cancers."

Mony will use the Sarachek travel award to present his research at the 18th International C. elegans Meeting at the University of California at Los Angeles in June. Mony, whose major professor is Michael Herman, professor of biology, looks at how an organism's genes respond to changes in environment. The work could help explain some gene functions that are still unknown.

"Since soil nematode and bacterial communities respond to various climatic and anthropogenic disturbances, we have used C. elegans, a model nematode, to study the interaction between nematode and soil bacteria," Mony said. "We've found several genes that are involved in nematode immunity whose functions are specific to a certain bacterial environment. Some of the genes involved in this study have similarities to genes involved in human defense responses."

The Saracheks have annually awarded the $15,000 fellowship and one or more scientific travel awards of up to $1,000 to K-State doctoral students since 2002. A faculty selection committee determines the winners. Nominees must show evidence of effective communication of research results through publications and presentations at national or international meetings. According to the Saracheks, the fields of study for their awards can be as dissimilar as heart disease research and wheat blight studies, but addressing the important questions of each field demands rigorous molecular level investigations.

Alvin Sarachek received his doctorate in genetics from K-State in 1957. He and his wife created the fellowship and travel awards because he said he values the K-State tradition of offering a broad array of quality programs in the life sciences, many with outstanding national reputations. They also wanted to contribute to that tradition of excellence by recognizing students whose research on a variety of biological problems involves molecular approaches. More information on the Sarachek awards is available online at http://www.k-state.edu/grad/sarachekaward/welcome.htm.