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Zoologist awarded Fulbright scholarship for biomedical research

By Srila Nayak

Understanding eating habits and sleep patterns

Jaga Giebultowicz, professor in the Department of Integrative Biology and an expert on biological (circadian) clocks and their functions in organismal health, has been awarded a Fulbright research and teaching scholarship for the year 2017-2018. Giebultowicz’s Fulbright scholarship will take her to the University of Warsaw in Poland, where she will conduct research and teach in the Department of Experimental and Clinical Physiology.

Her Fulbright project is entitled, “Collaboration on Novel Research and Teaching Concepts in Biomedical Science.” This is the second Fulbright award for Giebultowicz. She had undertaken research on the important roles of biological clocks in reproduction at the University of Warsaw as a Fulbright Scholar in 2001-02 .

“I am very excited at having this unique opportunity to dedicate most of my time to research and innovative teaching. I look forward to using this prestigious award to engage Polish researchers and students in collaborations that would strengthen the relationships between the people of the United States and Poland,” Giebultowicz responded.

Giebultowicz’s research shows how circadian clocks are involved in almost every significant biological process from lifespan to reproduction, metabolic adaptation, aging, human health and disease, gene expression and a host of neurological and behavioral functions. As part of her current research focus on clock-controlled aging mechanisms, Giebultowicz and her team study Drosophila or fruit flies because many basic biological, physiological and neurological properties, including circadian clock molecular mechanisms, are similar between mammals and fruit flies.

Understanding circadian clocks

Circadian clocks, found in individual cells of the human body, are based on molecular pathways made up of genes and proteins that organize our bodily functions in 24 hour rhythms from eating, movement and work during the day to sleep and rest at night. Circadian clocks can be disrupted by unhealthy eating habits and sleep patterns. The latter lead to lead to poor coordination between the body’s clock systems and the external environment or a breakdown in the timing of processes between organ systems. An improved understanding of the circadian system, encompassing almost every cellular process in organs such as heart, brain and liver, can be key in enhancing long-term health and longevity.

Employing genomic, genetic, biochemical and physiological experiments and approaches, Giebultowicz and her research team have made numerous important advances in the study of circadian clocks and its links with aging and disease.

In collaboration with David Hendrix’s lab in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, Giebultowicz performed deep sequencing of genes in young and old Drosophila, which led to the remarkable discovery that some of the circadian system genes, dubbed late life cyclers or LLCs, are able to protect against stresses related to aging and neurodegeneration.

While it is widely known that circadian disruption (due to jet lag or lack of sleep) can affect health, this study published in Nature Communications demonstrates the genetic mechanisms by which the body clock can protect against the effects of aging in organisms and help them adapt to their “changing cellular environments during aging.”

Giebultowicz’s past research significantly contributed to a paradigm shift in chronobiology from the long-held view that a single clock in the brain governs all rhythmic functions to the current realization that the circadian system also contains many peripheral clocks that coordinate tissue-specific molecular and physiological rhythms.

At the University of Warsaw, Giebultowicz will carry out further genetic experiments on the LLC genes to determine whether they protect the nervous system from oxidative damage. In a second project, Giebultowicz will attempt to identify cellular rhythms that may protect the aging brain from oxidative stress by examining cellular pathways in the brains of flies with normal versus disrupted clocks across their lifespan.

“Our collaborative research will introduce novel concepts to our discipline that circadian clocks may recruit protective genes in the aging brain to maintain neuronal health. We expect to obtain cutting-edge results that will advance understanding of the mechanisms of aging and inform how to slow down age-related decline in cognitive and physical abilities,” observed Giebultowicz.

During her Fulbright term, Giebultowicz will teach two courses, one of which will be “Rhythms of Life"—a course she has taught students at OSU Honors College. The course introduces students to biological clocks in humans and fruit flies as well as the concepts of healthy and disrupted circadian clocks.

She also plans to teach a completely new course specifically designed for her Fulbright award that combines elements of genetics, physiology and bioinformatics. The course, entitled “Molecular Mechanisms of Aging” will introduce students to the database on genome-wide changes in gene expression in aging Drosophila through which they will learn how the expression of functionally related genes is altered by aging.

Additionally, Giebultowicz will also direct a graduate seminar on recent topics in the biology of aging. Through her teaching and mentorship, Giebultowicz aims to impart training in advanced experimental genetics to her students at the University of Warsaw.

Giebultowicz is also a faculty member in the Center for Genome Research and Biocomputing and an affiliated researcher at the Center for Healthy Aging Research at OSU. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Warsaw and has been at OSU since 1995.