Caspase proteins are important in the development of multicellular organisms, like humans. Caspases also protect multicellular organisms from out-of-control cell growth such as cancer, in a process called programmed cell death, where cells purposefully die to protect the rest of the organism.
For example, explained Teague, skin cells peel off after a bad sunburn. “This is the outer cells on your skin sensing that their DNA has been damaged. Peeling off is better than the possibility that the cells would become cancerous,” he said.
Bryans finds the entire project interesting. “I believe that by understanding how caspases work in yeast, we can better understand how caspases work in humans,” he said.
Rusnak and Thompson joined Bryans on the MCA1 research team. But little is known about MCA1, itself. So, they used the lab’s standard tools, like incubators, centrifuges, thermocyclers, and gel electrophoresis equipment, to learn more about it. They also used a fluorescence microscope, as well as a flow cytometer and a NanoDrop spectrophotometer.
To better understand MCA1’s role in multicellular organisms, the team studied yeast, a single-cell organism. They are working to figure out when, where and under what conditions yeast cells make MCA1 and which other proteins it interacts with.
“This will give insight into programmed cell death and targeted cell therapies for cancer treatment,” Rusnak said. “It’s exciting to be working on something that could prove to be medically important or possibly progress cancer research.”
“I think there are a lot of exciting applications for gene modification in both humans and other organisms. This research project is helping me a lot to learn about biology and genetics,” Thompson added.
One day, Teague was chatting with biology Professor Steve Nold, who is collaborating with Curt Basina at Copper Crow Distillery in Bayfield to find a feasible way to turn cheese whey into distilled beverages, like vodka and gin.
As brewer’s yeast can't ferment lactose, which is the primary carbohydrate in cheese whey, Basina has to use an expensive enzyme pretreatment, Teague explained. “I thought to myself, ‘What if we could create a strain of yeast that could use the lactose directly? There are other organisms that do it. In theory, it shouldn't actually be that hard. In practice, we will see.”
In the lab, Teague and ABMB students are building a set of DNA constructs to allow yeast to metabolize lactose and turn it into ethanol. Then, they will test small-scale fermentations to see how well the constructs worked. Ultimately, they'd like to try it at a commercial scale at Copper Crow.
“Producing vodka and gin from cheese whey would be a uniquely Wisconsin product,” Teague said. “This state produces a lot of cheese, and most of the whey from that production is discarded. A genetically engineered organism could make the distilling process easier, less costly and more sustainable.”
Ethanol is an important biofuel, and it is becoming more important as we turn away from oil and its climate impact, Teague added. “Ethanol is currently mostly made from corn. But there are plenty of other things we could be doing with that corn, like feeding livestock and people,” he said. “Cheese whey, on the other hand, is basically free.”
He calculated that if just 10% of the cheese whey produced in Wisconsin were turned into ethanol, the state would produce about as much ethanol as the entire country does annually.
The value of mentored research
The six student researchers range from sophomores to recently graduated, and their interests vary from medical school to pharmaceuticals to biology and biotechnology research. Teague believes the skills they gain in the lab and concepts covered in their courses are transferable across ABMB fields.
“Mentored research connects ideas from all over the curriculum,” he said. “It’s a fabulous context in which to develop mental connections. No matter where they end up, thinking critically about evidence and using it to make decisions is crucial.”