June 2017

Researchers Define Structure of Key Enzyme Implicated in Cancer, Neurological Disease

Stony Brook-led research into the structure of a key enzyme involved with cell growth regulation could offer important clues to understanding cancer and neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease. The finding, published in PNAS, reveals the first visualization of the enzyme and could provide insight into how the enzyme is activated.

The enzyme, neutral sphingomyelinase (nSMase2), is one of the major enzymes that produces ceramide in the body. Ceramides are oil-like lipids that are produced in response to chemotherapy and other cell stresses. The ceramides that nSMase2 produces allow cancer cells to pass DNA and proteins to other cells to change their behavior. This plays a significant role in aiding the cancerous cells to spread into other regions as ceramides are produced. With this first visual of the structure of the enzyme, the researchers hope to understand how to de-activate the enzyme. Information on de-activating the enzyme could lead to a way to design cancer drugs that inhibit nSMase2.

The different colors of this structural visualization of nSMase2 indicate parts of the enzyme that may change their shape when the protein is switched ‘on,’ encouraging cancer cells to spread.

“Our finding is promising because the way in which we determined the structure reveals an unexpected mechanism for how nSMase2 is activated to generate ceramide,” said Mike Airola, PhD, Assistant Professor of Biochemistry and Cell Biology and lead author. To obtain this structure, the researchers screened thousands of different samples to have this protein form very small crystals that could be captured visually via X-rays. These X-rays bounce off the protein, and based on the angle of movements they calculated what structure looks like.

Once they defined structure in this way, the research team made hypotheses as to how the shape of this important enzyme changes in order to be activated and then tested these hypotheses. Their findings suggested the same region that kept nSMase2 off was crucial for turning it on.

The researchers determined the enzyme consists of two parts: one that partitions inside the oil-like membrane and one that soluble in water. Their work with the structure revealed that to turn nSMase2 ‘on,’ these two parts come together to switch the enzyme from off to on. They found that by removing some of these parts, they were able to obtain a picture of the enzyme trapped in its ‘off’ state. Using the structure, Dr. Airola and colleagues added back different parts of the enzyme, and then they were able to turn it back on to its on, or activated state.

Dr. Airola explained that while much is known about the cellular functions of nSMase2, there is limited scientific knowledge into the molecular mechanisms regulating its activity. This latest research presents the crystal structure of the enzyme and enabled the researchers to understand its molecular mechanism to a level not known before.

The next step in their research is to get a picture of the enzyme in its activated ‘on’ state. They are also working to identify new scaffolds that could be used as drugs to inhibit this enzyme. Their long-term goal is to understand how this enzyme is turned on and stop it from working as potential therapeutic strategy.

Co-authors on the paper include Stony Brook University researchers Lina M. Obeid, Yusuf A. Hannun and Can E. Senkal of the Stony Brook University Cancer Center; Miguel Garcia-Diaz and Kip Guja of the Department of Pharmacological Sciences; Prajna Shanbhogue and Rohan Maini of the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology; Achraf Shamseddine of the Department of Medicine; and Nana Bartke and Bill X. Wu of the Medical University of South Carolina.

The research was supported in part by the National institutes of Health. Some of the research was completed with access to the facilities at the Synchrotron Light Source and Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Stony Brook Receives $4.5 Million Grant to Recruit Leaders in AI and Cybersecurity

Stony Brook University’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences has been awarded two grants totaling $4.5 million from SUNY’s Empire Innovation Program. The funding will be used to recruit and retain world-class faculty and researchers that strengthen Stony Brook’s research productivity in two high economic opportunity areas of state and national significance — artificial intelligence (AI) and cybersecurity. These hires will also accelerate the development of the emergent Institute for AI-Driven Discovery & Innovation. The initiative for the institute involves a collaboration between the CEAS and Stony Brook University School of Medicine, as faculty in these two high-tech areas encompass experts in multiple areas of medicine and engineering.

Computer Sciences Building
Stony Brook University’s Computer Sciences Building
The awards are designed to strengthen Stony Brook’s prominence by funding senior field-leading hires in AI and cybersecurity. In AI, Stony Brook will focus on applications in medicine, smart environments and infrastructures, as well as core AI and machine-learning technologies. In cybersecurity, the focus will be on hardware security, operating systems security, big data security, and mobile security and on the National Security Institute, the existing cybersecurity cluster in Stony Brook.

“Stony Brook has consistently played a nationally prominent role in AI and cybersecurity research,” said Samuel L. Stanley Jr., President of Stony Brook University. “We have recently undertaken a bold, strategic initiative in engineering-driven medicine for which AI technology and cybersecurity of medical data are significant drivers. This grant will enable us to recruit leading faculty researchers, and invest added resources with our current researchers as they together pursue excellence in advancing these fields.”

The envisioned Institute will serve as a hub for all AI related research on campus and position Stony Brook as a leader in AI research. In addition to carrying out funded research, the Institute will catalyze new educational programs generating professionals for the AI-driven economy of the future. This will range from core technical programs (e.g., interdisciplinary data science and engineering or machine learning) to science communication, technology policy and entrepreneurship programs. The Institute will also stimulate regional economy by providing local industry and entrepreneurs with new technology training and new graduates to hire.

Space for the new hires will be allocated in the new Computer Science building commissioned in 2015, the upcoming MART (Medicine and Research Translation) building. Contingent upon AI cluster hire needs, additional space will be available in existing centers, including the Center of Excellence in Wireless & Information Technology (CEWIT), the Institute for Advanced Computational Science (IACS) and I-DIME, the new building focused on discovery and innovation in medicine and engineering to be located in the Stony Brook University Research and Development Park.

PhD student wins Social Policy Research Grant

Jamie Sommer, a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at Stony Brook University, has received a research grant from the Horowitz Foundation for Social Policy for her work, “Is Bilateral Environmental Aid Effective? A Cross-National Analysis of Forest Loss.” Sommer is one of 20 award winners chosen by the board of trustees from 535 applications.

“I am honored to receive the Horowitz Foundation research grant to continue my work on analyzing the effectiveness of bilateral aid at reducing environmental harms cross-nationally,” said Sommer. “This project is part of my larger research narrative, which aims to understand the role of the state in reducing forest loss. In particular, this grant will help me theoretically and empirically test what types of foreign bilateral environmental aid are most effective, considering the internal political and economic characteristics of receiving nations. The findings will help donors implement policies to ensure the delivery of their funds and that projects are improving the environment and reducing forest loss. I hope my research will help inform the U.S. and other high-income nations in how to increase the effectiveness of their aid to limit the loss of our world’s forests.”

“This year the foundation saw a marked increase in not just the number of applications, but also the number of applicants holding citizenship in other countries, although surprisingly all recipients attend U.S. institutions,” said Horowitz Foundation Chair Mary E. Curtis. “The winners were chosen by the trustees for their potential to contribute to social policy on both a global and local level. As we look forward to celebrating our 20th year in 2018, we hope to continue aiding international scholars at home and abroad.”

About the Horowitz Foundation for Social Policy
The Horowitz Foundation for Social Policy was established in 1997 by Irving Louis Horowitz and Mary E. Curtis. Its general purpose is to support the advancement of research and understanding in the major fields of the social sciences. Since inception, the foundation has awarded grants to more than 200 scholars from over 100 different universities around the world.

Applications for 2017 Awards
Award applications for next year open July 1, 2017, and all application materials are due on December 1, 2017. Applicants are encouraged to begin their application online as early as possible. Award winners for 2017 will be announced in May 2018. Additional information, including a list of previous recipients, is available on the Horowitz Foundation website.

SBU Research Helps SUNY Rank Among Top 100 Worldwide for Patents

SUNY ranked 38th in the “Top 100 Worldwide Universities Granted U.S. Utility Patents for 2016,” according to the National Academy of Inventors and Intellectual Property Owners Association, which publishes the ranking annually based on U.S. Patent and Trademark Office data.

SUNY campuses overall were awarded 57 U.S. utility patents. Among those from Stony Brook University is a redesigned a catheter developed by a multidisciplinary team led by Annie Rohan from the School of Nursing. The catheter incorporates LED lights to reduce the likelihood of infection after the device is inserted into a patient’s body.

“Catheter-related infections are a multibillion-dollar-a-year problem,” says Rohan. “Healthcare providers have addressed it with prophylactic antibiotics, handwashing, and techniques to maintain sterility, but up until now there hasn’t been a product that can successfully reduce infection risk once the device is in the body.”

“Across SUNY, our faculty and students partner to make groundbreaking discoveries in a broad spectrum of areas,” said SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher. “Through more than 1,300 U.S. patents earned to date, SUNY research has led to hundreds of new technologies and advances that address society’s greatest challenges and have a positive impact on quality of life in New York and beyond. Congratulations to all those at SUNY whose important work has elevated us to this prominent world ranking.”

Study links late-night tweeting by NBA players to worse game performance

When pro ballers indulge in late-night tweetstorms, they aren’t just courting controversy: they could also be impacting their performance on-court.

A new study led by Stony Brook researchers suggests that NBA players had worse personal statistics in games that followed a late-night tweet.

Players scored on average about 1 point less in games following late-night tweets, and their shooting accuracy dropped 2.5 percentage points compared with their performance in games that did not follow late-night tweeting. After a late-night tweet, players also took fewer shots and had fewer rebounds, steals and blocks. “Using late-night tweeting activity as a proxy for being up late, we interpret these data to show that basketball skills are impaired after getting less sleep,” said lead investigator Jason J. Jones, PhD, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Stony Brook University in New York.

“While experimental studies have shown the impact of sleep deprivation on performance, this study uses big data to provide interpretable results on real-world performance of basketball players.”

According to the authors, most of the statistical changes following late-night tweets can be explained by fewer minutes played. Players had an average of 2 minutes less playing time following late-night tweeting.

“Our findings are relevant beyond just sports science research,” said study co-author Lauren Hale, PhD, Professor of Family, Population and Preventive Medicine in the Program in Public Health at Stony Brook University. “Our results demonstrate a broader phenomenon: to perform at your personal best, you should get a full night of sleep.”

The research team led by Jones and Hale merged two public sources of data for the study, analyzing Twitter account activity from 112 verified NBA players as well as basketball statistics from Yahoo Sports. The data, which included more than 30,000 tweets, were compiled across 7 basketball seasons from 2009 to 2016. To reduce the potential performance effects of changing time zones, the analysis included only games within the same time zone as the player’s home.

“Twitter is currently an untapped resource for late-night behavior data that can be used as a proxy for not sleeping,” said Jones. “We hope this will encourage further studies making use of time-stamped online behavior to study the effects of sleep deprivation on real-world performance.”

An Ancient Lake on Mars Was Able to Harbor a Variety of Lifeforms, Says SBU-Led Study

A Martian crater is providing more proof that the Red Planet may once have supported life, a Stony Brook geochemist and planetary scientist says in a recently published NASA study.

mars rock
Sedimentary rocks from three locations on lower Mount Sharp on Mars examined by NASA’s Curiosity rover provide examples of different textures interpreted as sediments deposited at different depths within a long lived lake. This example exhibits thicker layers which occur at the edge of a lake where sediment-bearing water enters the lake, slows down and drops much of its sediment. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
The study led by Assistant Professor Joel Hurowitz offers perhaps the most significant evidence to date that an ancient lake on Mars had all the ingredients of a life-sustaining body of water.

Building on the 2013 discovery that Mars’ Gale crater contained a freshwater lake more than 3 billion years ago, Assistant Professor Joel Hurowitz led a team of 22 international scientists using findings beamed to Earth from NASA’s Curiosity rover to determine that the lake was stratified, meaning that depending on the depth, its water created several co-existing environments where life could flourish, much like the lakes on Earth.

“The diversity of environments in this Martian lake would have provided multiple opportunities for different types of microbes to survive, including those that thrive in oxidant-rich conditions, those that thrive in oxidant-poor conditions, and those that inhabit the interface between those settings,” Hurowitz said. “This type of oxidant stratification is a common feature of lakes on Earth, and now we’ve found it on Mars.”

Hurowitz is an assistant professor in Stony Brook’s Department of Geosciences, as well as the head of one of three laboratories inside the University’s Center for Planetary Exploration (CPEx), which brings students and faculty together to pave the way for future human exploration of our solar system through interdisciplinary study and hands-on science.

The study, titled Redox stratification of an ancient lake in Gale crater, Mars and published in the June 2 edition of Science, uses evidence retrieved by the Curiosity rover from the base of a mountain inside Gale crater. After examining the physical, chemical and mineral characteristics of the mountain’s rock layers, the team was able to not only determine that the ancient lake was stratified, but that ancient Mars itself experienced distinct climate change.

During the time Gale crater held lake water, climate conditions changed from colder and drier to warmer and wetter. This relatively short-term climate change took place within a longer climate evolution, during which Mars transitioned from warm, wet conditions that supported lakes, to the cold, arid planet we see through our telescopes today.

Mars rocks
This diagram presents some of the processes and clues related to a long-ago lake on Mars that became stratified, with the shallow water richer in oxidants than deeper water was. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Stony Brook University
“These results give us unprecedented detail in answering questions about ancient environmental conditions on Mars,” said Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “I’m struck by how these fascinating conclusions on habitability and climate took everything the mission had to offer: a set of sophisticated science instruments, multiple years and miles of exploration, a landing site that retained a record of the ancient environment, and a lot of hard work by the mission team.”

While evidence of life on Mars is still unknown, seeking signs of life there starts with studying the environment and its ability, in present or ancient times, to sustain life. Developments such as these achieved by Hurowitz and all co-authors on the study reinforce NASA’s strategy to use rovers to further investigate Mars.

Hurowitz’s involvement with NASA’s missions to Mars continues as he is also deputy principal investigator for the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL), an instrument being developed within Stony Brook’s CPEx that will be part of the upcoming Mars 2020 Rover Mission, which will further explore Mars in search of possible signs of ancient life.

View a selection of press coverage this discovery received:
Nature: Life could have survived in Mars crater
Newsday: LI researcher: Mars crater held fresh water, key to early life
Popular Science: Mars was probably habitable for longer than we thought
Yahoo News UK: Ancient Mars Lake Had Multiple Environments That Might Have Supported Life
The Verge: An ancient Martian lake could have been teeming with lots of kinds of life
New Scientist: Mars rover sees signs of microbe-friendly layers in ancient lake
Space.com: Ancient Mars Lake Had Multiple Environments That Might Have Supported Life
International Business Times: Ancient Lake On Mars Was Stratified, Had Oxygen That Varied Across Depths

— By Brian Smith

SBU Research Leads the Way on Climate Change

As the world awaits President Trump’s decision on continued US participation in the Paris Accord, the landmark global warming agreement signed in 2015, Stony Brook researchers continue to pioneer discoveries that shed light on pressing climate issues.

Stony Brook’s commitment to collaborative research yields dividends that expand knowledge and create real-world impact in the fields of environmental science and energy. Read about some recent discoveries and initiatives:

Climate Change Threatening Humans Through Toxic Algae Spread
Caribbean Bats Would Need 8 Million Years to Recover from Extinctions
Creating a Sustainable Earth: Batteries Included
SBU Study Says Climate Change is Major Factor in Predicting Future Drought
Activity of a New Synthetic Compound May Be Key to Cleaner Nuclear Energy
Stony Brook’s Got the Power: How One University Earned Four Major Energy Research Awards in Less Than a Year
SoMAS’ Ellen Pikitch Leads Groundbreaking Work in Ocean Conservation
Physics Discovery Could Improve Solar Cells
Climate and Ecosystem Instability Delayed Dinosaur Success

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