Posted Jun. 25, 2014 at 9:26 a.m.

N.C. Science and Math student a hit at BIO conference

Published: 2014-06-25 09:26:24
Updated: 2014-06-25 09:26:24

What young scientist Daniel Ren didn’t collect in cash at the BIO International Convention in San Diego on Tuesday, he amassed in cachet.

The Cary youth was selected as one of this year’s top 15 international high school students whose bioscience work wowed the judges in the 2014 International BioGENEius Challenge.

The contest is sponsored by the Biotechnology Institute to nurture innovative and skilled student scientists. The international finals are scheduled each year as part of the BIO International Convention – in this case, running through Thursday.

The top four selected from the 15 finalists collected cash prizes today during a BIO lunch keynoted by Sir Richard Branson.

The $7,500 first-place winner was Emily Wang, a recent graduate of Henry M. Gunn High School, Palo Alto. Her research was in developing fluorescent proteins to improve biosensing.

The other winners, in order, were:

  • Logan Collins, Fairview High School, Boulder, $5,000
  • Neil Davey, Montgomery Blair High School, Silver Spring, Maryland, $2,500
  • Nathan Han, Boston Latin School, Boston, $1,000

The students presented their research to convention attendees.

Ren is a student in the North Carolina School of Science & Math in Durham, class of 2015. He previously attended Green Hope High School.

Myra Halpin, Ph.D., a chemistry instructor at NCSSM who is often involved in student competitions, was Ren’s faculty sponsor for the BioGENEius Challenge.

Ren's project looked at nerve cell connection points, called synapses, that transmit electrical impulses. They’re carefully regulated in a healthy organism by genes – the building blocks of life. But if a gene in a nerve cell becomes broken or otherwise changed, it can result in nervous system disorders and diseases including high blood pressure, heart problems, and epilepsy.

Ren studied two genes in a commonly used laboratory creature, Drosophila – a fruit fly. These two genes are known to be important in nervous system formation. His research shows that when both genes are structurally changed, or mutated, in the same fly, the nervous system does not develop correctly. Understanding the nervous system in fruit flies can lead to a better understanding of the causes of nervous system disorders in humans, and ultimately to their cures.

That's a lay-language attempt to describe his work. You can read the scientific version, in his words, below:

Project Title: Drosophila p21-activated kinase 3 in Glia Interacts with flower in Neurons to Regulate Synapse Structure and Function

Description: The primarily neuronally expressed gene flower plays an important role in synapse development, mediating the targeted release of Ca2+ at presynaptic terminals in order to couple endocytosis and exocytosis, allowing for proper synaptic vesicle fusion and neurotransmitter release. To gain insight on how flower is regulated, we examined the predominantly glial gene p21-activated kinase 3 (pak3). pak3 is known to interact with spastin, an AAA ATPase involved in microtubule severing, which is important to synapse development. Since both flower and spastin affect synapse formation, we hypothesized that pak3 also interacts with flower. To test this idea, we dissected Drosophila larvae with pak3 and flower mutations and inspected the synapses at their muscle 4 neuromuscular junctions. Here, we show that whereas pak3 mutants show only minimal synaptic defects and flower mutants have major deficiencies, when both genes are simultaneously mutated, loss of pak3 significantly enhances flower mutant synaptic phenotypes. Thus, pak3 and flower interact synergistically to regulate synapse structure and function. Additionally, this supports the theory that glia are essential nervous system components and play key roles in proper nervous system functions.

Note: Jim Shamp is director of public relations for the N.C. Biotechnology Center.

(C) N.C. Biotechnology Center


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