Protas, who joined Dominican’s Department of Natural Sciences and Mathematics in 2014, began studying the invertebrate Asellus aquaticus as a postdoctoral researcher at UC Berkeley. She received her doctorate in genetics from Harvard Medical School, where she studied the genetic basis of morphological evolution in the cavefish, Astyanax mexicanus, and while doing so “became hooked on studying cave animals."
A. aquaticus is unusual in that one species has two forms with extreme differences in eye size, pigmentation, and appendage length. The surface-dwelling form has pigment and eyes while cave-dwelling forms are unpigmented and do not have eyes. Protas and her Dominican students are investigating the genetics and developmental biology behind these morphological differences in order to understand how and why these characteristics evolved.
“The genes responsible for eye loss in these cave crustaceans may also be involved in eye degeneration in humans,” Protas says. “Our project addresses important questions that involve the fields of developmental biology, genetics, and evolutionary biology. Most importantly, our work has the potential to uncover a completely new subset of genetic variation responsible for human eye degeneration.”
The animals are bred and maintained in Protas’ Dominican lab, living off decaying leaves and stored in incubators kept at 12 degrees Celsius. Both undergraduate and master’s students have worked with Protas on these animals throughout the five years she has been at Dominican.
Training of undergraduates is one of the top priorities of the NIH grant. The project will involve at least four students at a time, for a total of three years. Dominican’s unique Research Methodology program in the School of Health and Natural Sciences emphasizes engaged learning for science students, involving all students in a research program starting their freshman year. In their sophomore year and first semester of their junior year, these students continue to work in small groups with a specific faculty mentor. Often, the students will continue to work on their project through their senior year.
Dr. Protas’ program provides an option for students interested in developmental biology and genetics. In addition, the research program will be valuable for students interested in organismal and biomedical research and who are trying to explore either both aspects or decide between them as they advance to graduate school or industry.
“Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Eye Institute of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R15EY029499. The content is solely the responsibility of the author and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.”