Musto and O’Neill explore olfactory cells

Published: September 25, 2015

PHOTO COURTESY OF GEORGE GOMEZ / GRACE O’NEILL and Christa Musto collaborate on a project in George Gomez’s, Ph. D., laboratory at The University. Musto and O’Neill study the effects of odors on the differentiation of olfactory cells.

PHOTO COURTESY OF GEORGE GOMEZ / GRACE O’NEILL and Christa Musto collaborate on a project in George Gomez’s, Ph. D., laboratory at The University. Musto and O’Neill study the effects of odors on the differentiation of olfactory cells.

ANNE KENNEDY
Science & Tech Correspondent

Senior BCMB majors Grace O’Neill and Christa Musto conduct research with George Gomez, Ph.D., in biology. They are currently studying the effect of smells on the differentiation of sensory neurons. Additionally, both are presenting their work at this year’s American Society for Cell Biology’s annual meeting in San Diego, California.

Both began their research careers through The University’s cellular biology course, taught by Gomez. Through this course and the required lab, both became interested in research, something that had not interested them before. After they completed the lab, they asked Gomez to continue to work on a project, and he suggested their current project.

Gomez is interested in the effect of smells on olfactory cell differentiation, which is the process by which cells determine their specific role. He shared his interests with O’Neill and Musto, who continued his project. To test the effect of exogeneous odors, O’Neill and Musto exposed the cells to different odors, such as roses or bananas. Then they tested the cells’ odor sensitivity. To do this they measured calcium levels in the cell, which spike when the cell recognizes an odor. They also tested the cells for expression of olfactory marker protein (OMP), which is expressed in mature olfactory neurons. The odors that the cells had previously been exposed to elicited a higher response than the odors that did not.

This year, O’Neill and Musto are continuing their project by looking at different pathways the cells use to register the smells. To do this, they are examining the olfactory-type G protein, which activates when the cell senses an odor. Therefore, the higher expression of olfactory-type G protein in a cell, the more sensitive it is to an odor. They are also continuing to examine the OMP protein.

Referring to O’Neill and Musto, Gomez said, “It is a pleasure to work with them, and they truly work as a team… watching them grow intellectually over the last two years is one of the more rewarding experiences that I have had as a teacher.”

In the future, O’Neill hopes to attend medical school. She says that research has helped her manage her time in college, since her project often required her to spend a lot of time in the lab. Additionally, O’Neill appreciates the experience she gained in Gomez’s lab, as it will help her in her future should she work in another lab. O’Neill also appreciates all the people in the lab with whom she works alongside.

“I’m grateful that I chose to do research because of all the friends I gained through it,” she said.

Musto plans on attending dental school next year. She believes that research has helped her further develop teamwork skills that will be helpful in her future. She also loves the lab for all of the people she gets to work with. When asked for advice for other undergraduates contemplating their futures, she said, “If you think research is dumb, and you don’t want to do it, give it a chance and at least expose yourself to it, regardless of what career you want to pursue.”

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