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Keck Grant Recipient Studies RNA Stability

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With a million-dollar award from the W. M. Keck Foundation, virologist Britt Glaunsinger now has the funding to pursue “unconventional avenues” to study the inner workings of human cells. The award honors innovative young scientists in the area of biomedical research, and will support Glaunsinger’s work using the herpesvirus as a tool to study the inner workings of human cells.

“The great thing about the award is that the Foundation is funding ideas that might be too risky for other grant agencies,” says Glaunsinger. “It will allow us to get at questions we wouldn’t normally be able to ask without this funding. This pretty much made my year.”

Glaunsinger will use the grant money for innovative experiments using the herpesvirus to probe how our cells regulate their RNA. The virus uses a mysterious trick to evade the immune response: It destroys all the RNA inside every cell it infects. Glaunsinger’s research group has identified the key viral protein involved in the widespread destruction, but no one yet understands how it works.

Glaunsinger thinks the virus is co-opting some of the cell’s normal machinery to regulate RNA stability. Some RNA molecules are long-lived and others turn over very quickly, depending on their function. The cell has finely tuned mechanisms to maintain or destroy RNA molecules, Glaunsinger said, but these mechanisms are largely not understood. By learning which pieces of the machinery the virus adopts for its own uses, Glaunsinger hopes to uncover the workings of the cellular machinery itself.

-Rachel Tompa


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