$1 Million Grant Supports Scientist’s Study of Protein Trafficking Dynamics

A Duquesne biology professor has received a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant of more than $1 million to explore how cells adapt to stress and changes in their environment by reorganizing existing proteins.

Dr. Allyson O’Donnell, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, was selected for a five-year, NSF Faculty Early Career Development Program Grant, which is awarded to less than 10 percent of all applicants.

O’Donnell is the third scientist in Duquesne’s Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences to receive this prestigious grant since 2008, said Bayer Dean Dr. Philip Reeder. “We’re very excited about Dr. O’Donnell’s award and the opportunities to expand her research while involving our students and high school partners,” he said. “The award not only illustrates the high quality of research at Duquesne, given their highly competitive nature, but confirms the consistent excellence in research and teaching among our faculty.”

Titled Regulation of Cargo Selection and Ubiquitination by Protein Trafficking Adaptors, O’Donnell’s research examines a process called protein trafficking that determines which proteins go where inside the cell. In response to new environments, some proteins may stay in place but others may be carted away and targeted for degradation, which allows for constant remodeling of the cell.

O’Donnell’s work focuses on a class of proteins called alpha-arrestins, which are devoted to the selective protein reshuffling that occurs inside the cell in response to environmental stressors or altered nutrient supply. Alpha-arrestins are key decision makers, assuring that this protein reorganization happens correctly and helping proteins get to the right locations inside the cell. This branch of science is young—the term “alpha-arrestin” was coined only in 2008.

“It’s actually amazing they went unstudied for such a long time,” O’Donnell said, “especially because their jobs are critical to cells—and alpha-arrestins are in almost all cell types.

“If the environment changes, alpha-arrestins can selectively target a specific protein to the cell surface while removing a different protein from that same location. What is the signal sensed by the alpha-arrestin that allows proteins to be selectively transported? “How does the alpha-arrestin recognize the proteins it must move?” O’Donnell asked. “Answering these fundamental biological questions can impact all aspects of cell physiology and can have far reaching clinical implications.”

As these important research questions are addressed, high school students in a Taylor Allderdice program; undergraduate and graduate students will gain hands-on research experience; and O’Donnell will incorporate aspects of her research in the curriculum of an undergraduate laboratory course.

“The funds from the NSF grant and the interdisciplinary nature of this research project ensure that trainees at all levels gain exposure to a wide array of scientific approaches,” O’Donnell said. “Importantly, students enrolled in my course or those working with me in the lab will get a chance to experience the thrill of scientific discovery and contribute to advancing the boundaries of knowledge in the field of protein trafficking.”