Disabling an Enzyme Cripples Cancer Cells

Illustration of an aggressive cancer cell IMAGE: O'Reilly Science Art

Knocking out a single enzyme dramatically cripples the ability of aggressive cancer cells to spread and grow tumors, offering a promising new target in the development of cancer treatments, according to a UC Berkeley study published August 26 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research sheds new light on the importance of lipids, a group of molecules that includes fatty acids and cholesterol, in the development of cancer.

Researchers have long known that cancer cells metabolize lipids differently than normal cells. Levels of ether lipids — a class of lipids that are harder to break down — are particularly elevated in highly malignant tumors, although the nature of that correlation has been unclear for decades.

"Cancer cells make and use a lot of fat and lipids, and that makes sense because cancer cells divide and proliferate at an accelerated rate, and to do that, they need lipids, which make up the membranes of the cell," said the study principal investigator Daniel Nomura, assistant professor of nutritional sciences and toxicology. "Lipids have a variety of uses for cellular structure, but what we're showing with our study is that lipids can also send signals that fuel cancer growth."

In the study, Nomura and his team tested the effects of reducing ether lipids on human skin cancer cells and primary breast tumors. They targeted an enzyme, alkylglycerone phosphate synthase, or AGPS, known to be critical to the formation of ether lipids, and found that inactivating it substantially reduced the aggressiveness of the cancer cells. "The cancer cells were less able to move and invade," said Nomura.

The researchers also found that in mice injected with cancer cells, disabling AGPS resulted in no tumor growth, whereas mice with the enzyme intact rapidly developed tumors.

Future steps include the development of AGPS inhibitors for use in cancer therapy, Nomura said. The study co-authors also include Kunxin Luo, professor of molecular and cell biology and faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

— Adapted from an article by Sarah Yang

Repairing Acid Rain Damage Improves Forest Health

Maple leaf

Acid rain from industrial pollution has damaged the health of forests for close to 50 years. Working in the American Northeast, researchers led by John Battles, professor of forest ecology, restored soil calcium that had been depleted by acid rain. As a result, the forests have increased their levels of carbon sequestration and improved their resiliency to major disturbances like ice storms, which are likely to increase with climate change.

Researchers have also measured significant improvements to the health of the iconic sugar maple, a tree species sensitive to acid rain effects. The findings were published in September in Environmental Science and Technology Letters.

— Adapted from an article by Sarah Yang

VENERABLE: The Society of American Foresters awarded Kevin O'Hara, professor of silviculture, the 2013 Carl Alwin Schenck Award "in recognition of devotion and demonstrated outstanding performance in the field of forestry education." O'Hara was honored at a ceremony held in October in Charleston, S.C.

Park It

Carolyn Finney

Geographer Carolyn Finney, assistant professor of environmental science, policy, and management (ESPM), is one of 12 appointees to the distinguished leadership panel of the Parks Forward Commission, it was announced in August.

Parks Forward, created following the passage of the California State Park Stewardship Act of 2012, is tasked with designing and adopting a blueprint for "a financially sustainable and functionally relevant State Park System that meets the needs of a changing population and provides an innovative park system model for the rest of the nation," according to a press release from the California Resources Agency. Caryl Hart Ph.D. '09, ESPM, director of Sonoma County Regional Parks and a CNR Advisory Board member, is also serving on the new leadership panel.

Store Credit

Shop mannequin

Energy and resources doctoral candidate Laura Schewel was named the winner of the 2013 Young Researcher of the Year award at the International Transport Summit in Leipzig, Germany, on May 23.

Her title-winning paper, "Shop 'Till We Drop: A History and Policy Analysis of Retail Goods Movement," analyzed two large data sets to understand how much time both shoppers and merchandise delivery trucks spend motoring on the road to retail. Improving the data and understanding interactions between sectors could lower shopping-related greenhouse gas emissions and lead to more sustainability-oriented policies, Schewel says. See NewsMakers.

Scientists Use Today's Cells to Date Origins of Photosynthesis, Biodiversity

Photosynthesizing cyanobacteria invaded the earliest one-celled plants about 900 million years ago, eventually becoming chloroplasts (pictured) that conferred on plants the ability to convert sunlight into energy. PHOTO: iStockphoto

Long before Earth became lush, when life consisted of single-celled organisms afloat in a planet-wide sea, bacteria invaded the ancient ancestors of plants and animals and took up permanent residence. One bacterium eventually became the mitochondria that today powers all plant and animal cells; another became the chloroplast that turns sunlight into energy in green plants.

A new analysis by two UC Berkeley graduate students more precisely pinpoints when these life-changing invasions occurred, placing the origin of photosynthesis in plants hundreds of millions of years earlier than once thought. The paper was published in June in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"When you are talking about these really ancient events, scientists have estimated numbers that are all over the board," said study co-author Patrick Shih, Ph.D. '13, Plant and Microbial Biology. Estimates of the age of eukaryotes — cells with a nucleus that evolved into all of today's plants and animals — range from 800 million years to 3 billion years ago.

"We came up with a novel way of decreasing the uncertainty and increasing our confidence in dating these events," he said. Shih and colleague Nicholas Matzke, Ph.D. '13, Integrative Biology, believe that their approach can help answer similar questions about the origins of ancient microscopic fossils.

The two researchers employed fossil and genetic evidence to estimate the dates when bacteria set up shop as symbiotic organisms in the earliest one-celled eukaryotes. They concluded that a proteobacterium invaded eurkaryotes about 1.2 billion years ago, in line with earlier estimates. They found that a cyanobacterium — a blue-green algae that had already developed photosynthesis — invaded eukaryotes 900 million years ago, much later than some estimates, which are as high as 2 billion years ago.

Shih and Matzke realized that they could get better precision than previous fossil-based estimates by studying today's mitochondria and chloroplasts, which from their free-living days still retain genes that are evolutionarily related to genes currently present in plant and animal DNA. "These genes ... were present in our single-celled ancestors and are present now and are really, really conserved," Matzke said. "These go back to the last common ancestor of all living things, so it helps us constrain the tree of life."

— Adapted from an article by Robert Sanders

Bedbugs Won't Take the Bait

Bed bugs

Detecting bedbugs is key to controlling them, and a new UC study shows that current methods for finding the blood-sucking pests aren't very reliable. Researchers tested three commercial monitors. At best, the monitors containing attractants captured only 10 percent of the bedbugs, scientists wrote in the July–September issue of California Agriculture. The researchers call for improving monitors as well as developing new methods to lure the insects more effectively.

"If we could put out bait and the bedbugs find it and die, wouldn't that be great?" said Vernard Lewis, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management and lead author of the article. Lewis is testing attractants for bedbugs and observing their behavior.

— Adapted from an article by Pam Kan-Rice

New Ecological Twist on Climate Change

Male and female (yellow forehead) green-rumped parrotlets in Venezuela.

Yes, those spring wildflowers did arrive earlier this year. The timing of flowering, egg-laying, and migratory behavior — breeding behavior known as phenology — in many plants and animals has been altered by climate warming that affects their food supply and other environmental conditions. A new study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in September, provides the first evidence that phenological responses to climate change might be more complicated than previously thought.

The green-rumped parrotlet breeds multiple times from May to November in Venezuela, with variations driven by year-to-year differences in rainfall and population size, the study found. "It's advantageous for the birds to nest early in the breeding season to produce more offspring per year, but both the offspring and the breeding female survive better into the next year if nesting starts later," said Steven Beissinger, ESPM professor and the study's principal investigator. This pattern is called "opposing selection" and results from trade-offs between the timing of reproductive success and survival. Opposing selection could explain why many field studies of plants and animals report strong selection on heritable traits, such as bill length or body size in one direction — either larger or smaller — without accompanying changes in the trait over generations.

"Our results also highlight the importance of measuring the evolutionary basis for phenological shifts, not just documenting the shift, if we want to understand how species will cope with climate change," Beissinger said.

— Ann Brody Guy

POWER PLANTS: The Energy Biosciences Institute was granted its first patent since the public-private research partnership was established in 2007 between UC Berkeley, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and energy giant BP. U.S. Patent No. 8,431,360, titled "Methods and Compositions for Improving Sugar Transport, Mixed Sugar Fermentation, and Production of Biofuels," was granted on April 30. The discovery resulted from work that uses yeast to improve the conversion of plant cell wall sugar to produce biofuel.

Farewell to a Friend

Norma Gallins Kobzina: 1944–2013

Norma Gallins Kobzina. PHOTO: Peg Skorpinski

On May 6, Dean J. Keith Gilless sadly announced the death of Norma Kobzina, the head of Information Services at the Marian Koshland Bioscience and Natural Resources Library. She was 69 years old. The cause was pancreatic cancer. We are sharing just a few excerpts from the outpouring of affection for Kobzina, who had a Ph.D. in Spanish from Cornell as well as her M.L.I.S. from UC Berkeley. "Norma loved her work and always felt a part of the College of Natural Resources," John Kobzina, her husband of 45 years, told Breakthroughs. Norma, the feeling is mutual.

"Norma was considered by all who dealt with her to be the ultimate librarian and professional. However, she also should be remembered for the practical and scholarly contributions that she made that went far beyond the needs of Berkeley faculty and students. She wrote articles questioning the value of impact factors in evaluating research, looking at which journals contributed most to specific fields, and which papers were most influential. However, to me, she'll first be remembered as a great friend."
Vince Resh

"Norma was so kind and patient with me. She was a wonderful educator. I have adored her since I was a graduate student. She always ordered the books I wanted, and she helped this big institution seem like a community."
Lynn Huntsinger

"Norma remembered everyone's name, and her joy for helping people learn how to do research in her ever-changing library-scape only seemed to increase each year. She was a lovely and unique person."
Nancy Peluso

"I met Norma 25 years ago as we commuted on BART when she spotted a soil science journal in my hands and asked why I was reading it. Her sparkling curiosity was one of the hallmarks of the working relationship we had since then, particularly when she was offered the challenge of teaching the library training sessions for the large freshman course I give on environmental studies with Professor Robert Hass of the English Department. Norma developed an extraordinary approach to combining environmental science and nature writing in these sessions, thereby ensuring that the broadest variety of library resources would be exposed to our students. Insofar as I am aware, this represented the first time humanities and natural sciences were integrated to give library instruction to Berkeley undergraduates. Through her remarkable efforts, the intrinsically interdisciplinary spirit of the course was made manifest in a way neither Bob Hass nor I had expected. She was truly one of the great treasures of the Berkeley Library."
Garrison Sposito

To help support the work that Norma loved, send a check for the Norma Kobzina Library Fund to: Development and External Relations, The University Library, 131 Doe Library, Berkeley, CA 94720-6000.


Pamela Behrsin

After getting to know each other at CNR's 2012 homecoming picnic, Pamela Behrsin '10 of MapLight, a nonprofit research organization that tracks money's influence on politics, and Hillary Lehr '07 (pictured), director of Global Exchange's Elect Democracy campaign, teamed up to create the hard-hitting report, Meet the FIRE Sector: How Wall Street Is Burning Democracy, which charted the $4.2 billion spent by finance, insurance, and real estate industries (FIRE) on lobbying, campaign contributions, and other influence efforts in the past six years.

The report's accompanying scorecard assigned each sitting member of Congress a Wall Street Loyalty rating based on the percentage of the lawmaker's votes that aligned with the FIRE lobby's positions on legislation impacting economic security.

— Ann Brody Guy

MolTox Wins New Internship

Breanna Morris PHOTO: Dwight Ford

Last spring, local startup Elara Bioscience launched a paid internship created specifically for Berkeley's molecular toxicology undergraduates. Working under the direction of Dale Johnson, the company's president and CEO and an adjunct professor of nutritional sciences and toxicology, interns will pitch in toward the company's goal of providing industry with online, secure access to chemical toxicity data and current safety regulations.

Breanna Morris, now a junior, won the inaugural spot and was joined by two more interns over the summer. "The most exciting thing about the internship is the chance to see the real-world effects of the work we've done," she says. Getting lost in small, segmented tasks can sometimes result in losing sight of the bigger picture, but she says, "as an intern I can step back and see how all of the work we put in moves us closer to the company's goals."

Morris, who has worked for a decade at her own web design and e-marketing company and is married with three children, saw her two interests come together. "The internship gave me the opportunity to see how web technologies can be applied to the biotech and toxicology industries," she says. "It's great to have a chance to merge my love of information technology with my passion for toxicology."

— Ann Brody Guy

Bob Buchanan Retires

Bob Buchanan

Plant and Microbial Biology Professor Bob Buchanan retired in June after serving on the UC Berkeley faculty for 50 years, with the last 5 as CNR's executive associate dean. During his career, he made major discoveries in microbiology and biochemistry, published more than 200 research articles, taught an estimated 10,000 students, and co-edited the leading textbook on plant biochemistry and molecular biology. His numerous honors include election to the National Academy of Sciences, being a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and receipt of an Alexander von Humboldt Research Award.

Read Berkeley, My Half-Century: Bob B. Buchanan

Steven Lindow, a professor of plant and microbial biology, has been appointed the new executive associate dean of the College. Lindow is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, the American Phytopathological Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.


David Sunding"[The project] does clearly pass a cost-benefit test to the tune of something like $5 billion."

David Sunding, Professor, Agricultural and Resource Economics

An August 6 Los Angeles Times article covered an economic analysis, led by Sunding, that determined that the benefits of building a new tunnel system for the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta would far outweigh the costs. The project would stabilize water supplies from the Delta, which serves roughly two out of every three Californians, as well as restore the estuary's ecosystem. 

Laura Schewel"We have no idea what's happening on the roads. Just none. When you compare that to what we know about what people watch on TV, it's absurd."

Laura Schewel, M.S. '11, Ph.D. Candidate, Energy and Resources Group

Schewel was named one of MIT Technology Review's annual "35 Innovators Under 35," published in the September/October issue, for her company StreetLight Data. The startup developed software that uses cellphone and navigation data to generate the demographics of people who drive by or stop near any specified address. The results have applications not just for transportation but for marketing, business development, and urban planning.

Steven E. Brenner"How long will it be until an idealistic and technically literate researcher deliberately releases genome and trait information ... in the name of open science?"

Steven E. Brenner, Professor, Plant and Microbial Biology

In a June 12 opinion piece in the journal Nature, Brenner says it's inevitable that a leak of genomic information will occur. "Individual scientists, institutions, and funders should consider now how they will react when this happens," Brenner says. He stressed that discussions about the risks of a leak must also include the tremendous benefits to society of using that information to achieve medical progress.

"Tips fluctuate from shift to shift, but rent and bills are constant."

Saru Jayaraman, Director, Food Labor Research Center, and 2013 Berkeley Food Institute Visiting Scholar

In a New York Times opinion piece published June 23, Jayaraman advocates for a stable, livable base wage for restaurant workers. She appeared in numerous media outlets last year, including "The Bill Maher Show" and "Moyers and Company," promoting food workers' rights and her 2013 book Behind the Kitchen Door. See A Voice for Food Workers.