Department of Biology

Department of Biology

Faculty Research

Peter Avis, PhD: Plant-Fungi Interactions, the Impacts of Air Pollution and DNA Technology

The interactions between plants and microbes like mycorrhizal fungi serve essential roles in the productivity and nutrient cycling of terrestrial ecosystems. Dr. Avis’ research is focused on testing hypotheses about these interactions, specifically mycorrhizal symbioses, at multiple levels of biology by using the methods of molecular ecology, plant biology, and mycology. Much of his research has addressed how these symbioses are impacted by global change events such as nitrogen pollution, and this has led to questions about what allows certain fungi to dominate mycorrhizal communities and how their evolutionary history relates to current ecological function. Dr. Avis also conducts research on how mycorrhizas can be used to supplement and enhance efforts to re-vegetate landscapes and how to advance molecular tools used to study fungal communities. He is also a research associate at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

Spencer Cortwright, PhD: Restoration of Wetlands and Prairie Along the Little Calumet River

Just one century ago, northwest Indiana was one of the most ecologically dynamic and diverse areas in North America. Various geographical, climatological, and historical factors merged here to create an ecological tapestry rarely encountered on our continent. However, just one century of urbanization and suburban sprawl have nearly obliterated this remarkable natural heritage.  Fortunately, pieces of this treasure have been preserved; these preserves are usually small, isolated, and have suffered abuses. Dr. Spencer Cortwright’s research is restoring prairie and wetlands along the Little Calumet River in Gary. At present about 100 acres are either actively being restored or in preparation. By restoring these habitats, we enhance the ecological value of natural areas by reducing distances between preserves and even connecting some of them. Plant and animal life should be enhanced and the ability of the watershed to cleanse itself of contamination improved.

Ming Gao, PhD: Germline Stem Cells, Its Specification and Development

Dr. Ming Gao’s research focuses on germ cells, a unique class of stem cells that give rise to eggs and sperm, and ultimately to an entire organism after gamete fusion. He is interested in how germ cells are specified and therefore separated from the somatic cell lineage. He uses Drosophila melanogaster (fruit fly) as the model organism to study the formation of the germ cell line during the development of the egg.

In Drosophila, key genes like tud, me31B are crucial for the formation of the germline stem cells. How do these genes function at the molecular/genetic level in this process? Humans have homologous genes for fruit fly gene tud and me31B. What advancement in human fertility, child development, and stem cell studies can we achieve by understanding how these genes work in flies? Dr. Ming Gao is trying to answer these questions using a molecular genetics approach.

Michael LaPointe, PhD: Hypertension and Links to Kidney Disease and Diabetes

Hypertension is closely linked to both kidney disease and diabetes, either as a precursor or as an outcome. The severity of hypertension is determined by a complex interplay between sodium levels and acid/base balances within your body. Dr. Michael LaPointe’s research explores the association between kidney function, salt retention, and increased blood pressure. Specific cellular mechanisms within the body are responsible for thickening of artery walls in hypertensive subjects – a fundamental defect that causes increased cell growth of the artery walls which then leads to arterial thickening, contributing to hypertension. Kidney disease can cause or exacerbate the resulting high blood pressure in people at risk for hypertensive disease and diabetes, resulting in chronic health problems.

Harold Olivey, PhD: Transcriptional Regulation of Heart and Blood Vessel Development

Heart defects are the most common category of birth defect seen in humans, occurring in approximately 5 out of every 1,000 live births. Formation of an intact, functional heart depends on the tightly regulated expression of thousands of genes during embryonic life. Dr. Olivey’s research focuses on the role of one transcriptional regulator, a gene called FOG-2, which is indispensible for the proper formation of both the heart and the coronary vessels that deliver blood to the heart muscle. To investigate the genes that are regulated by FOG-2, Dr. Olivey employs techniques such as real-time (quantitative) PCR and microarray (Gene Chip) analysis, both in his laboratory at IU Northwest and through collaboration with investigators at the University of Chicago.