Inside USD

Mastering the ABCs of Actin Networks

Friday, August 2, 2013

Savanna Blair ‘15 and Jonathon Collom Valdivia ‘17 wrote this reflection about their work this summer with Rae Anderson, assistant professor of physics. Through a National Science Foundation grant, Anderson is studying networks of biopolymers, such as the protein actin, whose properties change under various environments. The work could lead to the development of revolutionary materials for military, commercial and medical applications. Blair, who is majoring in biophysics and electrical engineering, is participating in the SURE (Summer Undergraduate Research Experience) program, and Collom Valdivia, who plans to major in biophysics, is participating in the PURE (Pre-Undergraduate Research Experience) program.

During the spring semester, I found out about the research Professor Anderson was conducting at USD and I decided I wanted to be a part of it. I then applied for a SURE grant and began working in her lab in June. After my first week a PURE student, Jonathon Collom Valdivia, joined the project.

Since then we have been working to develop and optimize protocols for polymerizing  (linking) and labeling proteins called actin. Actin is a key structural part of all cells. We are conducting research in order to build a better understanding of the physical properties of actin networks.

So far we have learned about the actin protein itself, optical tweezers which will be utilized to determine network properties, and LabVIEW which is a program we will use to control electric components of our experiments. We have hit some roadblocks when it comes to polymerization of the actin, but what would research be without some failures?

We are also working with micron-sized microspheres.  Eventually we want to be able to get to the point where we can attach these beads to single actin filaments.  These microspheres can actually be trapped by the optical tweezers.  While visualizing trapped beads on a piezoelectric stage, we can oscillate the slide, keeping a trapped bead relatively stationary.

We can then track the slight movement of the bead by measuring the deflection of the laser from the tweezers with a position-sensing device. Using this data, we can analyze the reactions to movements of the attached actin filament within actin networks. Jonathon and I plan on continuing research with Professor Anderson throughout our undergraduate careers at USD.

— Savanna Blair ‘15 and Jonathon Collom Valdivia ‘17

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