Assistant professor of biology Brian Bayless earned a grant from the National Institutes of Health to research motile cilia, microscopic hair-like appendages that extend from cell membranes inside the human body.

Fiona Law ’21 says the research with Professor Brian Bayless allows students to make meaningful discoveries. “With the spontaneity and unpredictability of our research, I had the flexibility to try different things,” Law says. “I could look at an experiment and think how we could change it to solve the problem on our own.”

When Brian Bayless looks at motile cilia, he sees the arms of a swimmer. The tiny hair-like appendages that extend from cell membranes inside the human body rhythmically whip, like a freestyle stroke, pumping extracellular fluid past cells to organs that need it.

“When you’re swimming, you pull the water behind you and then have a recovery stroke to minimize drag and bring your arm back in position to pull the water again,” the assistant professor of biology says. “That’s exactly what motile cilia are doing.”

Disruption of motile cilia-driven extracellular fluid flow can result in devastating disorders like hydrocephaly, child-onset epilepsy, respiratory distress, and female infertility. Despite the importance of motile cilia, scientists are puzzled by the microtubules that constitute the major building block of their structure.

Unlike most microtubules that grow and shrink rapidly, motile cilia microtubules are stable in size and shape but elastic enough to bend without breaking.

Bayless has received a $407,661 grant from the National Institutes of Health to support ongoing research aimed at better understanding motile cilia.

Working alongside Bayless in the Sobrato Campus for Discovery and Innovation, students will use CRISPR technology to manipulate DNA to analyze how proteins affect the behavior of motile cilia.

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