A Day in the Lab: Undergrads study infections and disease with basic cell biology

Nathan Leclair, an eighth semester molecular biology major, is seen researching in Kenneth Campellone's lab. (Jason Jiang/The Daily Campus)

“The blue is DNA,” Nathan Leclair, an eighth-semester molecular cell biology major said, pointing toward his laptop screen at a photo of a cell. “The green is a protein I’m studying called GMY, which I think is involved in cancer formation.”

Leclair stains different parts of the cell various colors after altering them, takes pictures and puts them together to understand the interactions that occur inside.

“All this yellow stuff is where this GMY protein is also with actin,” Leclair said. “Which is really cool because it shows that there’s a lot of interaction with actin throughout the cell.”

Actin is a protein that forms the structures that shape cells, called cytoskeletons, much like the bones that shape human bodies. Cytoskeletons not only give cells their structure, they also give them the ability to move and to transport materials inside themselves, assistant professor Kenneth Campellone said.

In Campellone’s lab at the University of Connecticut, undergraduates like Leclair are working on a diverse set of independent projects that relate to the function of the cytoskeleton and the spread of bacterial infections.

“We do a lot of different things,” Campellone said. “We’re a jack-of-all-trades lab.”

The lab is interested in studying how the actin cytoskeleton normally functions and how it is altered in infections from pathogenic bacteria in a genetic disorder or in cell aging.

The GMY protein’s effects on the cytoskeleton, Leclair said, may also explain many cancers. Leclair is studying how its effects on the cytoskeleton might play a role.

“Last year I did a SURF (Student Undergraduate Research Fund grant) for a new project involving this GMY protein and how it works in apoptosis, which is programmed cell death,” Leclair said. “It tells you if the cell is messed up and if it should kill itself so it doesn’t promote any other problems overall in the tissue.”

Getting around programmed cell death, Leclair said, is one of the main ways that tumors form. After inducing damage in cells, Leclair found that those with GMY had more cell death than those without GMY.

Another undergraduate, Henry Chen, is an eighth-semester molecular cell biology and physiology and neurobiology major working on the effects of bacteria on innate immune cells.

“Innate immune cells are the cell’s first line of defense against infections before your acquired immune system starts to kick in,” Chen said. “Macrophages are an example of innate immune cells.”

When pathogens, like bacteria, enter the body, innate immune cells secrete a protein signal called cytokine that alerts other cells in the body of infection.

“I want to look at whether or not these strictly pathogenic strains of bacteria inhibit the functions of these immune cells or amp them up,” Chen said. 

In the lab, Chen infects macrophages with specific bacteria in a medium then collects the medium to measure how much cytokine the macrophage secreted in response to infection.

Other lab members, including Ph.D. students, are studying how bacteria like E. coli use the cytoskeleton in cells for their own benefit, Campellone said. When E. coli enters the intestines, they manipulate intestinal cells to create a pedestal structure, which they then use to move from one cell to another.

“The way it gets into cells and the way it moves through the cell both rely on the properties of the cytoskeleton,” Campellone said. “Pathogenic E. coli make a toxin that enters blood and kidney cells and kills them, often causing bloody diarrhea.”

Despite wanting to be a physicist when he was an undergraduate, Campellone became immersed in biology during graduate school where he found his passion for working in the lab with these bacteria.

“I realized that’s what I should be doing with my life,” Campellone said. “When you’re in the lab doing experiments, you’re really on the ground floor, the trenches, of finding out new things.”

He emphasized the importance of discovery in science and what research at UConn might offer students who are interested.

“One of the great things about UConn is that we’re really welcoming to undergraduates performing research in the lab,” Campellone said. “I have a lot of undergrads in my lab and I think they are getting a way better research experience than I did when I was an undergrad. Hopefully, it’s as meaningful for them now as it was for me.”

One of those undergraduates, Chen, said he decided to get involved in Campellone’s lab because of his interest in the relationship between bacteria and the immune system.

 “It would be really interesting in the future, if I were to go to dental school, to get involved in research on oral pathogenicity and how it causes infections and illnesses related to your teeth,” Chen said. “The health of your teeth could reflect your overall health.”


Diler Haji is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus and can be reached via email at diler.haji@uconn.edu.