New Cell Biology chair adds
faculty, model systems
As one of the world's leading researchers in the field, Barry Shur, chair
of the Department of Cell Biology, is credited with opening up an entirely
new area of research with his work in the biology of adhesion and cell surface
interactions. In research begun 20 years ago, Shur and his colleagues identified
the receptor on the sperm surface called galactosyl transferase that allows
sperm to bind to the egg coat and fertilize an egg. Shur believes this knowlege
may lead to further understanding of infertility and to more specific, less
He discovered that galactosyl transferase is also used by metastatic
cancer cells when they migrate from a primary tumor and bind to distant
cells. He has shown that the more aggressive a metastatic cancer cell is,
the more of the receptor it expresses. "Our hope is that by blocking
this receptor we might block metastasis," he said. "In the laboratory,
we can make poorly aggressive tumors highly aggressive by molecularly expressing
more of the receptor, and we can make highly malignant cells less malignant
by inhibiting the expression of that protein."
Add frog eggs, flies and slime mold
When Shur came to Emory, he had a mandate to expand and rejuvenate cell
biology by hiring top-notch faculty members. After narrowing the field to
10 superstars, he limited his offers to three highly competitive candidates.
All three accepted, and he was well on his way to expanding his new department
exactly according to plan-in molecular cell and developmental biology.
Shur wants the department to grow in all aspects of cell and developmental
biology, and is bringing in diverse model systems, including yeast, worms
(nematodes), fruit flies (drosophila), South African clawed frogs (xenopus),
and the hottest new model system in biology, the zebrafish, a transparent
animal with a clear view of every cell in its embryo during development.
Shur insists these models are not just esoteric, but he sometimes has
a hard time convincing others. "When they ask what do these systems
have to offer for our understanding of human disease, I point out genes
that control the cell cycle, cancer and embryonic development, to name only
a very few, were all identified using systems such as xenopus, yeast and
fruit flies," said Shur. "The burden is on us, the scientists,
to better explain how these model systems [mimic] the human condition."
Two of his three new recruits, Krishna Bhat and Kevin Moses, are fruit
fly experts-the same system used by three recent Nobel laureates. Formerly
at Princeton, Bhat has identified a whole new class of genes in the fruit
fly that determine how the stem cells of the central nervous system are
programmed to become cells with a variety of functions. Moses, a nationally
recognized senior faculty investigator from the University of Southern California,
uses drosophila to study how molecules in the eye signal instructions to
The third recruit, Maureen Powers from the University of California at
San Diego, investigates the structure and function of the nuclear pore-the
barrier between the nucleus and cytoplasm that is the only means of transfer
and communication between these two cell areas. Her model is the South African
clawed frog egg, described by Shur as "a K-Mart for biochemists, chock
full of building blocks for the early embryo."
Established research in the department includes 12 investigators whose
work covers vision, olfaction, neuronal stem cells, the pathology of Alzheimers
disease, neuromuscular control, calcium signaling, central nervous system
injury and repair, molecular motors (molecules that transport structures
from one part of the cell to the other), the cytoskeleton (the latticework
of the cell) and protein processing.
A cell by any other name
Joining a national trend, Emory's department recently changed its name from
Anatomy and Cell Biology to Cell Biology, a shift reflecting the fact that
anatomy no longer exists as a research discipline. "We already know
how the body is put together at the gross, or organ, level," said Shur.
"Now we need to know how it is put together at the microscopic and
molecular level. Cell biology is a broad topic that covers all the science
we deal with and encompasses our entire teaching mission as well."
The department teaches courses in human anatomy, cell biology, developmental
biology and neurobiology to medical students, in addition to its efforts
in allied health and the graduate school. "To say that we take our
teaching commitment seriously is an understatement," Shur said. "We
teach about 50 percent of the first-year medical school curriculum."
He is proud of the fact that faculty member Kyle Peterson, who put much
of the department's cell biology and gross anatomy visual aids into multimedia
format, recently received Emory's innovative teaching award.
Shur has known he would be a research scientist since the fourth grade.
"I was one of those weirdos in school who had a laboratory in their
basement," he admitted. "I was one of the lucky ones, too, who
had an obsession about what they wanted to do all through school."
As a graduate student at Johns Hopkins, where he received his PhD in 1976,
Shur found studying the development of the embryo "an amazing thing"
and hasn't left the topic since. He completed a Helen Hay Whitney Fellowship
at New York's Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, then joined the relatively
new University of Connecticut Medical School faculty before going on to
Texas' M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in 1984, where he rose to chair the biochemistry
and molecular biology department.
to January 26, 1998 Contents Page