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David Bricker
University Communications

Last modified: Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Biologist's cell cycle research gets $1.39 million in NIH support

Dec. 15, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The National Institute of General Medical Sciences has awarded Indiana University Bloomington biologist Joe Pomerening $1.39 million over five years to study the biochemical controls of cell division, otherwise known as mitosis. The NIGMS is a division of the National Institutes of Health.

Joe Pomerening and student

Photo by Arthur Luhur

Biologist Joe Pomerening (left) and graduate student Qing Kang

Print-Quality Photo

Pomerening is an expert on the regulation of the cell cycle, a complex network of genetic and biochemical interactions that directs cells to grow in size and divide -- or not, in the case of cells instructed to stop dividing. When something goes wrong with the cell cycle, the result can be cancerous, uncontrolled growth.

"We're interested in understanding the fundamental rules that determine how cell cycle enzymes and other proteins communicate with each other," Pomerening said. "We want to know how specific sets of proteins interact to pass signals to each other in a way that provides an intelligible set of instructions to cells when it's time to divide."

Scientists' understanding of the cell cycle has soared in the last few decades. But the literature generated by cell biologists, biochemists and molecular biologists has tended to focus on the behaviors of individual proteins involved in cell cycle regulation. Pomerening uses his expertise in systems and computational biology to analyze groups or networks of regulatory proteins, since these networks can produce much more complex behavior than single proteins can.

"We are going to investigate how proteins organize themselves in a way to transmit information to give the message to the cell when it is, or it's not yet time to initiate the processes that lead to cell division," Pomerening said. "Looking at everything, together, we'll ask, how do these systems know to turn division processes off or on?"

Despite the complexities presented by the regulatory actions of lots of proteins, Pomerening says that in a sense, the output couldn't be simpler -- either a cell is directed to divide, or it isn't.

"So many things in biology are switch-like," Pomerening said. "Things are either on or off. Other types of responses are more like dimmers, where the process can be activated or inactivated gradually. In either case, we're interested in understanding the biochemistry of how all of these signals are both transmitted and regulated in such a way that produces just one of two possible directives. What I find most fascinating is how cells manage to prevent problems from arising, despite the fact that they undergo many trillions of divisions during a human's life. My lab is pursuing to understand how cells manage to get it right so often, to better learn how and why it goes wrong in the case of cancer.

The grant money will be used primarily for salary support and purchasing equipment and reagents necessary to conduct the experiments laid out in the grant proposal. Pomerening says he expects to be able to provide funding for a new postdoctoral fellow or research associate, as well as three graduate students.

Pomerening credits IU's Light Microscopy Imaging Center with providing crucial support to his work. Pomerening and his collaborators have used the center to see in real time exactly what's happening to proteins inside cells. The center's executive director is IU Bloomington cell biologist Claire Walczak and its manager is IU Bloomington biophysicist Jim Powers.

Earlier this year, Pew Charitable Trusts awarded Pomerening $240,000 and the title Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences. The grant is reserved for life scientists whose early career work promises greatness.

To speak with Pomerening, please contact David Bricker at 812-856-9035 or