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Professor Jonathan Matsui Awarded $440,149 Grant for Genetic Research on Sensory Systems


Jonathan Matsui, professor of biology and neuroscience, has received a three-year, $440,159 grant from the National Institutes of Health for research on “Hair Cell Development of Zebrafish Mutants with Defects in the Marginal Zone.” The grant is funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

In humans, hair cells are the receptors found within the inner ear that mediate hearing and balance. “When the sensory hair cells die through environmental stresses (e.g. listening to the iPod too loudly for too long), normal aging and genetics, this often causes irreversible deafness and balance problems in humans,” explains Matsui. “Frogs, fish and birds, but not mammals, can regenerate inner ear sensory hair cells…similar to the ones replaced. In these animals, another cell found in the inner ear, called the supporting cell, is the source for the new sensory hair cells.”

Zebrafish, in addition to regenerating sensory hair cells, have an area in the retina called the ciliary marginal zone which produces precursor cells, that can become all of the other cell types found in the growing retina. For Matsui, “this raises the question of whether there is a redundancy between sensory systems.”

“There are several different mutant zebrafish lines that have smaller eyes due to reduced cellular proliferation in the ciliary marginal zone,” says Matsui. “We have asked the question, ‘If the role of supporting cells in the ear is comparable to that of the ciliary marginal zone in the retina, then do these mutant fish have defects in their sensory hair cell development and/or regenerative abilities?’ Preliminary data indicate that these mutants have fewer hair cells and so funds from this grant will further characterize these fish and identify the genes causing this small eye phenomenon.”

Understanding the genetics of cell proliferation in non-mammalian vertebrates could ultimately lead to therapies to restore lost senses in humans by revealing genes that regulate the number of cells found in the mammalian ear.

The NIH grant is funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and will also support student research on this project by Chien-Wei Chen ’11 and Sarah Rubenstein (Scripps ’11), as well as Julia Gleichman ’10 as laboratory technician.

On June 9, Matsui presents HHMI Summer lecture: “A Peek into the House of Usher: How Zebrafish are used to Study Blindness and Other Short Stories,” at 4 p.m., Seaver North auditorium, sponsored by the Pomona College Department of Biology and the Program in Neuroscience.

Pomona College is one of the nation’s premier liberal arts institutions, offering a comprehensive program in the arts, humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. Its hallmarks include small classes, close relationships between students and faculty, and a range of opportunities for student research.