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Functional and Systems Biology

Cell Signaling and Communications

Billions of cells, each with a one-of-a-kind role and behavior, make up living systems. Our expertise in systems biology, functional genomics, and biochemistry, enhanced by state-of-the-art capabilities in high-resolution imaging and single-cell multi-omic measurements, helps untangle the mechanisms by which cells communicate and exchange chemical signals. Quantitative studies of how individual cells grow and interact with their neighbors or hosts provide a critical understanding of molecular-level events underpinning the behaviors of complex biological systems and their responses to the changing environment.

The science

Expertise in the Cell Signaling and Communications Integrated Research Platform allows us to localize and isolate individual cells from complex biological samples for further structural and functional analyses. Then researchers can observe the live, intact cells and measure their unique responses over time to capture minute differences in cellular functions and outputs. Our technical capabilities enable labeling and characterization of subcellular structures and molecules in real time to quantify how, when, and where organisms exchange molecular signals and nutrients to foster interactions. As we begin to better understand and differentiate single-cell behavior, we are poised to predict functional outputs of interconnected biological systems as a function of their environment. This enables an informed design of organisms and communities with highly improved environmental and industrial properties for biosecurity and health applications.

How we do the science

EMSL’s Cell Signaling and Communications expertise combines multiple scientific disciplines and data visualization approaches with high-resolution molecular measurements and multiscale imaging techniques, including:

  • Fluorescence-activated cell sorters with high-detection sensitivity and sorting accuracy
  • Laser capture microdissection microscopes to isolate individual cells or cell types for spatially-resolved omics analysis
  • Next-generation single-cell sequencing and mass-spectrometry-based proteomic and metabolomic analysis
  • Quantitative multi-color fluorescence microscopy techniques to understand dynamic processes in live or intact cells such as:
    • super-resolution stochastic optical reconstruction microscopy (STORM)
    • photo-activated localization microscopy (PALM)
    • structured illumination microscopy (SIM) 
    • confocal Airyscan imaging
  • Single-molecule fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH), and immuno-chemistry or fluorescent proteins, as well as mass spectrometry imaging for quantitative analyses of transcripts, proteins, and metabolites in individual cells within communities or tissues
  • rRNA FISH for taxonomic or phylogenetic analysis of complex microbial communities

Research in action

Understanding plant metabolic pathwaysflowers and data points

Plants adapt to stressors and defend themselves through a variety of metabolic processes. One of these processes is the mevalonate (MVA) pathway. Scientists at the University of Missouri and EMSL used forward genetic screening to reveal the importance of mevalonate kinase, a critical enzyme in the MVA pathway, in plant metabolic signaling. Under stress conditions, plants release adenosine triphosphate (ATP) into their extracellular matrix. The researchers showed that MVA kinase directly interacts with an ATP receptor and becomes activated when extracellular ATP is present. This study highlights the importance of the MVA pathway in stress conditions.

Investigating gene regulation in brown rot fungi brownrotfungi

Brown rot fungi are common wood decomposers that break down cellulose and produce carbohydrates. The genes that regulate these processes are poorly understood. Scientists from the University of Minnesota and EMSL found that expression of those genes differed depending on whether the brown rot fungi was decomposing wood or another carbon source. The team characterized RNA transcripts and analyzed enzymes to investigate carbon catabolites and how they affect gene expression. Their work indicates that fungi have specialized machinery to control gene expression during wood rot.