Expert in nerve and muscle regeneration to deliver 16th James P. Holland Memorial Lecture

  • Oct. 2, 2015


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A top researcher in the regeneration of the nerves that control muscles will present the 16th James P. Holland Memorial Lecture on Monday, Oct. 5, at Indiana University Bloomington.

Graciela A. Unguez, a professor of biology at New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, will deliver the presentation from 4 to 5 p.m. in Myers Hall 130 at 915 E. Third St. on the IU Bloomington campus. 

The lecture, titled "Extreme muscle plasticity in electric fish: cellular and molecular insights," is free and open to the public.

Unguez is an expert on the use of Sternopygus macrurus, a species of South American knifefish, to study the regeneration of neuromuscular and electro-motor neuronal circuits, the nerves that control the muscles that move the skeleton.

A type of weakly electric fish, S. macrurus is useful to researchers interested in the connectivity of nerve cells and how they develop from their initial stages because of the fish's ability to regenerate the tissues in its tail -- including spinal cord, muscle and electric organs -- when it is injured.

Unguez's research uses this regeneration to investigate basic questions about how stem cells develop into a particular type of tissue or organ and how signals from the nervous system can influence the fate of those cells. Studying these processes can reveal basic molecular mechanisms that control how cells differentiate to form functional tissue.

The issues are at the heart of the formation and functioning of the body’s complex neuromuscular networks, and the work has potential to contribute to therapies that promote tissue regeneration in people related to diseases or injuries that lead to muscle or nerve atrophy.

"By turning off proteins that cause muscles to contract -- and expressing more of the proteins that cause muscles to produce electrical signals -- muscle cells effectively transform into an organ that produces electrical signals that allow the fish to sense their environment and communicate," said Troy Smith, an associate professor in the IU Bloomington Department of Biology who also uses electric fish in his research. "Dr. Unguez’s research elegantly takes advantage of the fact that electric organs and muscle are derived developmentally and evolutionarily from the same precursors to understand how cells differentiate into specialized tissues."

Unguez serves as the Society of Developmental Biology's representative on the training and career opportunities committee of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology and provides support to a fellowship program at New Mexico State University funded by the American Society for Cell Biology that aims to increase the participation of underrepresented minorities in education and research.

She also leads an NSF-funded project to recruit and mentor underrepresented minority and disabled students in developmental biology. A distinguished member of the Teaching Academy at New Mexico State University, Unguez has been named a National Academies Education Fellow in the Life Sciences. She holds a doctorate in physiology and bachelor’s degree in kinesiology from the University of California, Los Angeles, and served as a postdoctoral fellow in neuroscience at the University of Texas, Austin.

The James P. Holland Memorial Lecture Series was created in 2000 to honor the memory of one of the most beloved faculty members on the Bloomington campus, Professor James Holland (1934-1998). Holland had a passion for teaching that earned him virtually every teaching award offered on campus, including the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching. The lecture series honors his legacy and is designed to bring awareness of and support to diversity in the life sciences.  A fellowship in honor of Holland also supports the training of a first-year doctoral student from a group underrepresented in the life sciences each year.  

The Holland Lecture is sponsored by the IU Bloomington Office of the Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Multicultural Affairs; Office of the Provost; Office of the Vice Provost for Research; College of Arts and Sciences; Department of Biology; and the Medical Sciences Program.

Graciela A. Unguez

Graciela A. Unguez will deliver the 16th James P. Holland Memorial Lecture on Monday, Oct. 5, in Myers Hall at IU Bloomington. | Photo by New Mexico State University

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