Contact: Cynthia Haseltine, Assistant Professor, Molecular Biosciences, WSU, 509-335-6148, firstname.lastname@example.org
Federal Grant to Probe Overlooked Microbe for Clues to Cancer-causing DNA Damage
PULLMAN, Wash.-Cynthia Haseltine has a quick and slightly bizarre three-floor elevator speech: "We study this strange little bug that lives in nearly boiling acid and is going to help us understand part of the cause for leukemias and lymphomas."
It turns out that this bug, an eccentric microscopic life form called Archaea, has a few key traits in common with people. Haseltine, an assistant professor in the Washington State University School of Molecular Biosciences, has just received a $425,425 grant from the National Science Foundation to look at three particularly human-like proteins it uses to repair its remarkably human-like DNA.
Breaks in DNA lead to a variety of cancers. So while humans have 1,000 times more genetic material, the inner workings of Archaea's DNA can have an outsized importance.
"We're trying to build the car from the ground up," she said. "If we understand all the working parts of the car, then when something goes wrong, when the DNA doesn't get fixed properly because something is broken, we have a better idea of what the target is to try and fix it."
If anything is going to have broken DNA, it might well be Haseltine's favorite bug, Sulfolobus solfataricus. It likes "really unattractive, Hades-on-a-good-day" hot springs, where scalding temperatures and acidic surroundings are perfect for damaging DNA. Her own stock of Sulfolobus came from the smellier, less attractive hot springs of Yellowstone National Park.
"Their DNA might be broken at a higher frequency than microbes that don't live under such harsh conditions," said Haseltine, "so they may very well have evolved mechanisms for repairing DNA that are very robust and effective." And the human-like proteins they use to repair their DNA are very stable, durable and easy to use in a lab setting.
For all its utility, Archaea are among the least appreciated life forms on the planet. Textbooks have largely ignored them. They weren't placed in their own domain-separate from bacteria and eukaryotes, which include plants and animals-until 1990. Yet they take up an estimated one-fifth of the living material on the earth, often dwelling deep within it, like the Archaea found some 600 feet down in the ancient soil of Hanford, Wash., or those in deep ocean thermal vents.
Haseltine's lab is one of only a handful growing Sulfolobus, using incubators and plastic ShopKo shoeboxes to cook flasks of cloudy liquid that smell like gym socks. Her three-year NSF grant will support a research assistant professor, a graduate student, two undergraduates and two students from Pullman High School.
Read more and watch more videos about Haseltine in Washington State Magazine.