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Biology professor Javier Apfeld awarded NSF CAREER grant for early career faculty

For Biology Professor Javier Apfeld, his role as an educator is the best part of the job: “mentoring students and talking to them and brainstorming ideas, that’s the best part of it all. To see the students come to the lab and they’re excited about science, as they … develop their own ideas, it’s so exciting to see them grow, mature, and help direct them on their paths and teach good practices of how to be a scientist. To be on a quest for knowledge together is great.” In just three years, Apfeld has hosted over a dozen undergraduates students in his lab, including one co-op. To Apfeld, the undergraduates are an essential part of the lab.

Graduate student Jodie Norris sterilizes a tool used to sort worms in the Apfeld Lab. Photo by Tim Briggs.

This year, Apfeld received the 2018 National Science Foundation’s prestigious Faculty Early Career Program (CAREER) award to support his lab’s research on how inter-tissue communication affects protein oxidation during aging. A Northeastern professor for almost three years, Apfeld says the award is “a great honor, it’s nice to be recognized by your peers for this prestigious award.” The CAREER award is intended to support early-career faculty who are poised to become role models in education and research in their department or organization.

A student in the Apfeld Lab maintains petri dishes that contain C. elegans worms. Photo by Tim Briggs.

One reason undergraduates are such a key part of the lab is the literal millions of worms they help maintain. The Apfeld lab studies aging in C. elegans, a nematode worm and common model organism that allows scientists to study many phenomena in a simpler setting. “Worms only live a couple weeks, we live a thousand times longer,” said Apfeld, though the genetics of aging are surprisingly consistent across many organisms. According to Apfeld, “the same genes that are in worms are in flies and in mice, even though those organisms appear at first to age in different ways.” The worms’ condensed life span allows researchers to study a whole lifetime of the same aging process in just a few weeks, where it may take years in other animals.

A visualization of oxidation in a C. elegans worm.

In the early part of Apfeld’s career, he explored how to quantify and visualize aging in worms. One symptom of aging in tissues is protein oxidation, a form of protein damage. Oxidized proteins accumulate in worms as they age, and fluorescent sensors can pick up oxidation reactions, giving a picture of a worm’s cell as it ages. Research has shown that oxidized proteins are linked to age-related diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s.

Recent research has shown that aging and protein oxidation is controlled by certain genes that tune lifespan and how quickly tissues fail. This means that they not only control how long you life, but how gracefully you may age. Apfeld thinks that these findings ask the biggest questions in the field. “What’s exciting about what we’re studying is that we’re studying the signals from the brain that dictate which tissues should have protein damage, when they should have protein damage, and in other non-NSF projects, the signals controlling the resilience of the animals to stress, and how long they live.” 

Graduate student Jodie Norris sorts C. elegans worms in the Apfeld Lab. Photo by Tim Briggs.

Apfeld thinks that that the brain seems to be making decisions about when to age, which he says is surprising in an organism whose brain is a paltry 302 neurons, compared to a human’s 100 billion. Apfeld described the brain’s involvement in aging, “the worm is sensing the environment and then thinking about the external and internal environment of the worm and then it’s making a decision of, OK I should live long, I should have high stress resistance, I should have little protein damage, or the other way around.” Determining how sensory input affects the way a worm ages is the first of many questions Apfeld hopes to answer, though the youth of the field leads to uncertainty, as Apfeld confessed, eagerly, “we don’t even know the universe of questions to ask yet.”

The NSF CAREER grant will help fund further research into this area, supporting two graduate students and a co-op every year.

Learn more about the Apfeld Lab’s research on their website.

Stacked petri dishes in the Apfeld Lab. Photo by Tim Briggs.