Bates biochemist receives $272,000 grant


Paula Schlax, an assistant professor of chemistry at Bates College, has received a National Science Foundation grant for nearly $272,000 to support her research into bacterial responses to environmental stress.

This research, in which Schlax closely involves her students, promises to increase understanding of fundamental principles that govern whether or not genes express biologically active proteins.

Schlax, of Lewiston, will receive $271,840 from the NSF over three years. A member of the Bates faculty since 1998, she is investigating mechanisms through which bacteria respond to changes in their immediate environment.

Specifically, Schlax studies a molecule called RpoS that is common to many bacteria and regulates their stress response. Environmental stresses such as extreme temperatures, acidity or salinity trip a “genetic switch” that results in high RpoS levels. This stimulates the creation of “protector molecules” that toughen the organism against many types of stresses.

Understanding the stress response helps explain how bacteria survive drastic changes in their natural environment and how environmental stresses influence the composition of bacterial species in a natural ecosystem.

Additionally, many disease-causing bacteria undergo this stress response, says Schlax, and that response can influence organisms’ ability to harm human hosts. Understanding this process may provide insight into the mechanisms by which these organisms cause disease.

The NSF award is especially gratifying, Schlax says, because it “recognizes that Bates undergraduate students will participate in increasing fundamental scientific knowledge. It’s a great compliment to our students.”

She says, “Students will participate in all aspects of this research, from designing and carrying out experiments to interpreting data and presenting it to the greater scientific community.”

This work crosses the traditional boundaries of chemistry and molecular biology by investigating the relationship between the structure of RNA molecules and their function in gene expression, Schlax says. A goal is to “map” gene expression networks, which is a small part of the cutting-edge discipline of functional genomics.

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