As a developmental biologist, Assistant Professor of Biology Kristy Kenyon has spent years studying life in its most nascent forms. Her research efforts have focused on understanding the cellular mechanisms that drive embryonic cells to grow, divide, migrate, organize and differentiate into a vast number of cell types and tissues.
Now, Kenyon continues those efforts, with a new emphasis: discovering how Heliothine moth embryos build a sensory system involved in the detection of pheromones, the chemical mediators of complex behaviors such as species recognition and mating. This fall, the National Institute of Health recognized this important work with a three year, $215,100 grant funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Development.
The funds will allow Kenyon to study the molecular and cellular activities that direct embryonic cells in the creation of the specialized sensory cells located within the antennae of moths. From a research perspective, the “moth antennal imaginal discs”-part of the larva that will develop into the adult insect’s antennae-are extremely useful for “investigating key questions relating to pattern formation, cell fate specification and organogenesis,” according to Kenyon’s grant proposal.
“My hope is that this research effort will allow us to better understand the evolutionary connections among different moth species,” says Kenyon of the NIH Academic Research Enhancement Award. “And in terms of the bigger picture, by working on insects, I hope we can gain a better view of how mammals, including humans, build sensory systems necessary for olfaction.”
In conducting this research, Kenyon will attempt to identify the moth versions of genes known be important for olfactory development in other species such as fruit flies. Once identified, those gene sequences can be used with techniques involving fluorescence microscopy to visualize the journey of moth embryonic cells in building the antennae.
Kenyon and HWS student researchers will collaborate with Senior Research Associate Charles Linn and the Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor of Insect Biochemistry Wendell Roelofs, at Cornell University’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station (NYSAES) in Geneva, who will provide the moths. Kenyon was enlisted by the NYSAES to help detect how their pheromone systems are made.
“I’m very excited that this will give students opportunities to collaborate with entomologists at NYAES,” says Kenyon, noting these are decorated, top specialists in the field who have been studying insects for many years.
Her funding allows for the hiring of a part-time research assistant and one or two student-researchers each year. The students-conducting independent studies, honors projects and summer research-may have the opportunity to present their work at national conferences, as have past student-researchers such as Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship Finalist Travis Blum ’10. This past summer, Blum and Kenyon presented preliminary findings at the annual Society for Developmental Biology meeting held in San Francisco.
Kenyon, who joined the faculty in 2003, earned a B.A. from Colgate University and a Ph.D. from The George Washington University. She has taught at Brandeis University, The George Washington University and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. She has conducted research at Harvard Medical School and the Department of Ophthalmology at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary and is a member of the Society for Developmental Biology, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Genetics Society of America and National Science Teachers Association. She has published in Developmental Cell, Developmental Biology, International Journal of Developmental Biology, Development and Experimental Neurology.