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A Call for Collaboration
Pilot program from HHMI awards $40 million to eight multidisciplinary teams.
Left to right: Catherine Dulac, Harvard University; Susan Lindquist,
Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research; Douglas Rees, California Institute of Technology; Danny Reinberg, New York University School
Until four years ago, Danny Reinberg's research comfortably revolved around molecules and cells, just what Reinberg—a biochemist and HHMI investigator at New York University—had been trained to study. But then, at a scientific meeting, colleague Shelley Berger of the Wistar Institute mentioned her recent fascination with ant behavior, after observing leafcutter ants in Costa Rica. She suggested that ants might be a perfect organism for studying gene expression and behavior.
That encounter led to a unique, multidisciplinary collaboration that calls on the expertise of everyone involved. It's one of eight such collaborative projects that HHMI is funding as part of a $40 million pilot program.
The Collaborative Innovation Awards represent the first time the Institute will provide funding for specific research projects rather than funds for investigators to take their science in any number of directions. The new funds are intended to encourage HHMI investigators to join with scientists outside HHMI to undertake projects that are new and so large in scope that they require a team covering a range of fields. In Reinberg's case, that means collaborating with Berger as well as Juergen Liebig of Arizona State University, a leader in studying the complicated social dynamics of insect societies. The team hopes to explain how gene expression—rather than gene sequence—is passed to generations of ants, affecting their behavior, social roles, and aging.
HHMI's vice-president and chief scientific officer, Jack Dixon, says the newly funded projects represent an important step for the Institute. “This award permits our investigators to assemble the team of experts they need to attack these complex scientific problems,” he says. “We were looking for projects that could represent breakthroughs—those that could really change the way we think.”
At the Jackson Laboratory, in Bar Harbor, Maine, HHMI investigator Simon John has spent more than a decade using mouse models to study glaucoma—a major cause of vision loss and blindness. Glaucoma researchers desperately need new tools for measuring intraocular pressure, according to John. High intraocular pressure, which damages nerve cells in the eye, is a common cause of glaucoma.
With the help of a Collaborative Innovation Award, John will work with two Purdue University engineers to develop the world's first ultraminiature pressure-sensing device that can be implanted in the eyes of mice that have—or are at risk of developing—glaucoma.
“This program requires the investigators to step outside their normal comfort zone and expertise,” says John. “We thought our plan was a good match.”
Only slightly thicker than a human hair, and capable of transmitting the data it collects to the researchers via a tiny wireless antenna, the sensor could have other applications, says John—monitoring blood pressure or cerebrospinal fluid, for example.
Photos: Dulac: Matt Kalinowski, Lindquist: Cheryl Senter /AP ©HHMI, Rees: Rene Macura / AP ©HHMI, Reingberg: Bizuayehu Tesfaye / AP ©HHMI.