Academics and Research / News

Professor receives grant to study cell development

DU's Todd Blankenship talks at TEDxDU 2011 in May.

For University of Denver biology professor Todd Blankenship, $1.4 million will buy a lot of fruit flies.

It will also help students earn graduate degrees and help humankind understand how cells develop. It may even unlock the secrets behind insidious diseases.

In June, Blankenship learned he had landed a $1.4 million National Institutes of Health grant to pay for five years of research. The money, he says, will keep his laboratory funded, stocked with necessary research tools (and those ever-important fruit flies) and help him supply graduate students with stipends and scholarships.

“It’s very important for us,” he says. “DU is very generous in helping you set up a lab and get it going. But this really makes us independent. We can keep our lab going now for years.”

Blankenship studies how cells line up in the correct places to make us look like, and function like, the beings we become.

Blankenship and his students study the development of a benign breed of fruit fly because they thrive on a simple corn diet and have a rapid life cycle, blooming from egg to fly in little more than a week. So researchers always have plenty of embryos, which they watch through a high-speed, very powerful microscope to see how cells are arranged as the embryos develop.

With the grant, Blankenship says the lab will acquire a super-precise laser which can target tiny proteins within individual cells and study how they react when stimulated.

“It’s almost like taking a highlighter and marking those specific proteins, then watching where they go as they move through the cell,” he says.

Blankenship says he and his students are involved in pure research. Rather than hunting for secrets that can be monetized or put to some kind of work immediately, they are trying to understand how living things work.

Their findings could someday help other scientists understand the ramifications of developmental malfunctions, and perhaps unlock cures for diseases such as cancer.

“We’re just trying to understand how these proteins make cells do what they do,” Blankenship says. “But that advances our global understanding.”


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