Walhout lab graduate student Emma Watson received the 2014 Harold M. Weintraub Graduate Student Award for research into the complex interactions between diet, gene expression and physiology. Only 13 students from North America were chosen for the prestigious award sponsored by the Basic Sciences Division of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Fellow UMass graduate student Colin Conine who studies in Craig Mello’s lab also received the Weintraub award.
“I’m happy that both Colin and I won the award this year. I think it’s a testament to the strong community of C. elegans biologists here at UMass Medical School, with whom we have both trained,” said Watson. “We use the roundworm C. elegans to explore basic biological processes and find new angles of attack for human disease. C. elegans was the perfect model for me to study the genetic underpinnings that link diet and physiology. Its metabolic network and nutritional requirements are surprisingly a lot like ours, despite being a soil-dwelling nematode that eats bacteria all day long!”
“Emma is an outstanding graduate student who fully deserves this award,” said Dr. Walhout. “It is a pleasure to work with her. She is hard working, smart, fun and has vision. If she sets the bar, it is very high!”
Watson focuses her research on understanding the effects of diet on the genome, and how this relates to physiology. Using C. elegans and its bacterial diet, Watson developed a novel interspecies model that allows these questions to be addressed systemically. With this new systems biology model, she found that worms fed a diet of vitamin-B12-synthesizing bacteria exhibit altered gene expression and accelerated development compared to worms fed bacteria that cannot synthesize vitamin B12. Watson also found that worms rewire their metabolic network according to B12 availability, especially with regard to propionic acid metabolism, which depends on this essential vitamin and can cause a buildup of toxic metabolites under B12 deficiency.
The Weintraub award, established in 2000, honors the late Harold “Hal” M. Weintraub, PhD, a founding member of Fred Hutchinson’s Basic Sciences Division, who died of brain cancer in 1995 at age 49. Weintraub was an international leader in the field of molecular biology. Among his many contributions, he identified genes responsible for instructing cells to differentiate, or develop, into specific tissues such as muscle or bone. The award honors Weintraub and his enthusiastic support of colleagues, students and young scientists.
Conine and Watson will participate in a scientific symposium on May 2 at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.