Spotlight Scholar

Cell Secrets Revealed

Biologist sheds light on cell growth
  • Cell biologist Magdalena Bezanilla examines plant cell specimens in her lab

If you think of growing biofuel crops, the goal would be to grow crops that could survive in marginal lands, in soil that is not desirable for food production.

Cell Biologist Magdalena Bezanilla is unlocking the secret life of plants. She’s seeking answers to how cells grow, a fundamental, yet still-open biological question. Her research focuses on a special form of growth in plant cells known as tip growth, which is essential for development in plant species ranging from algae to flowering plants. “What we learn from tip growth in plants and how we learn to manipulate these unique cells helps us to understand more complex biological processes,” says Bezanilla.

Known on campus as the “moss lab,” Bezanilla’s research group has pioneered the use of moss as a model system to study tip growth. In the pecking order of plant life, moss may seem uninteresting. But Bezanilla discovered that moss is particularly well suited to her studies because its simplicity makes it amenable to modern genetic tools and allows scientists easy access to the proteins they want to study.

Understanding how plant cells grow determines plant cell shape, which ultimately dictates the plant’s appearance and other qualities. Molecular biologists and geneticists hope to manipulate tip growing cells to, for example, engineer hardier plants that can thrive in sub-optimum environments. “If you think of growing biofuel crops, the goal would be to grow crops that could survive in marginal lands, in soil that is not desirable for food production,” says Bezanilla.

The proteins Bezanilla studies in her moss plants are some of the same proteins found in animal cells, including those found in nerves. Though the work is in its early stages, she believes there are important similarities in the functions of plant and animal protein. “Since these proteins are so similar it is likely there are some parallels between plant tip growth and animal nerve cell growth,” says Bezanilla.

It’s likely she’s onto something because at this early stage in her career she’s collected an impressive list of awards to fund her investigations. Among them are the first Packard Fellowship that the campus has received in nearly a decade, and most recently, the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on outstanding scientists and engineers beginning their independent careers. Bezanilla and Polymer Science colleague and fellow PECASE winner Ryan Hayward were honored recently at the White House by President Obama.

Bezanilla earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a doctorate in biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology, from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She was a post-doctoral fellow at Washington University in St. Louis before coming to UMass Amherst in 2005. She was selected as the Chancellor’s Junior Faculty Fellow in 2008 and by the Provost in 2010 as one of our campus’s Exemplary Faculty.

Karen J. Hayes '85