When people hear that Professor Mary Russell is researching "cinnamon," they're confused. And the confusion is only natural. After all, why would a molecular biologist spend her time conducting research into something that almost everyone has in their pantry?
"Yeah, I get that look when I tell people outside the field what it is I'm working on," says Dr. Mary Russell, associate professor of biology at Kent State University at Trumbull. "But when I explain that I â€”and others in my field â€” are dealing with a protein, and not what my kids sprinkle on their toast, the light bulb comes on."
It is synemin (rhymes with cinnamon); a protein found in the human heart, that has framed Russell's research for the better part of the last 10 years.
In 2004, Russell, a graduate of The Ohio State University, received a Summer Research Grant from
Kent State University, with which she initiated the construction of cDNAs needed in the synemin project.
Since that time, Russell has added funding from the Farris Family Fellowship, which has aided her in her most recent synemin-related discovery. Russell has found that synemin has a second, completely unexpected, role in the muscle cell â€” both synemin proteins bind and tether a second protein in human heart cells to the internal cellular framework.
The second synemin protein, kinase A (PKA), participates in a cascade of events that, among numerous other things, allows muscle cells to respond to hormonal signals such as the release of adrenaline. This is a particularly complex set of events, and Russell is attempting to unravel the function of PKA being held tight by synemin in heart muscle cells. According to Russell, the picture is unclear since there are other pools of PKA within those cells.
Russell's research goals are to: construct cDNAs encoding alpha and beta synemin fused to a fluorescent protein; construct mutated cDNAs encoding alpha and beta synemin that do not anchor PKA and are fused to a fluorescent protein; determine the PKA substrates within cultured cells with either alpha or beta synemin; and visualize the location of each of these proteins alone and then together within the same cultured cells.
Using fluorescent microscopy, it is possible to determine where each protein is within a cell, and if they are localized together. Russell anticipates these discoveries to have exciting results within the next six months to a year.
In addition to heading up this project, Russell oversees several other projects in the Kent State Trumbull lab, each holding out the possibility of providing countless discoveries.