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Professor Backues Receives Major NSF Grant

Backues Research GroupSteven Backues, an assistant professor in the department, was the principal investigator on a $297,384 RUI grant from the National Science Foundation entitled “Scaffold or Assembly Line: How Does Atg11 Organize its Binding Partners for the Initiation of Selective Autophagy?”  This grant has the dual purpose of enhancing undergraduate education in the department and advancing humanity’s fundamental understanding of the medically relevant process of Autophagy. 


This grant will enhance undergraduate education in the department by helping support mentored undergraduate and master’s level research as well as bringing this research into the undergraduate biochemistry lab in the form of a “Course Associated Undergraduate Research Experience (CURE).” Studies have shown that the most effective way for students to learn science is by participating in authentic scientific research, and these efforts are in line with innovations undertaken by other professors teaching the biochemistry lab.


The specific subject of the research that this grant will support is selective autophagy, a cellular clean-up and recycling process used by animals, plants and fungi to maintain cellular health. Selective autophagy targets damaged or unwanted cellular components, such as toxic protein aggregates or malfunctioning mitochondria, and delivers them to the vacuole/lysosome where they are destroyed and their constituents recycled. Defects in selective autophagy in humans leads to neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, as well as some cancers. Dr. Backues’s research focuses on understanding the basic mechanisms of selective autophagy in the model organism baker’s yeast. One of the key proteins that guides the process of selective autophagy is Atg11, which interacts with a number of other autophagy proteins and organizes them into a functional protein complex. This research will explain how Atg11 organizes this complex by determining the characteristics of Atg11’s interactions with its protein partners. Specifically, it will determine whether Atg11can bring together all of its partners at once, in the manner of a scaffold, or whether it interacts with them one at a time, in the manner of an assembly line. This information will help us to understand how selective autophagy actually occurs, not only in yeast but also many other organisms that share a similar machinery, including humans.

A longer version of this story can be found at http://www.emich.edu/research/publications/center-stage.php.

- Posted 10/24/16, Revised 12/12/16

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