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A & S News

A Chemical Communication

June 17, 2009

By: Matt Pene

Note: This story originally appeared in the 2008 issue of Baylor Research magazine published by the Office of the Vice Provost for Research.

On the east side of Baylor's campus in the towering Baylor Sciences Building stands in contrast some of the smallest cell research taking place in the university's labs. Dr. Myeongwoo Lee and his team of graduate and undergraduate students are spending their time studying fertility - specifically how ovulation occurs by researching how the ovaries know when to release a mature egg.

"We believe it's controlled independently through a chemical communication between the egg and ovary," says Lee, an assistant professor of biology at Baylor since 2002. "We are studying a family of cell surface proteins, called integrin, which are responsible for communication between the cells and their environment."

To understand how integrin controls the function of the ovary, Lee is studying a specific type of worm, Caenorhabditis elegans. These microscopic worms contain many of the same cell types, proteins and tissues as mammals, but carry far fewer genes than mammals, making them easier to study. Lee and his team are looking at 300 genes and their individual roles.

"The final goal is to isolate the genes responsible for releasing the egg." Lee says. "If we can do that, it could eventually lead to increased fertility."

Research into this type of recombinant DNA, which combines DNA molecules, is an area of biology that has grown exponentially at Baylor over the last several years.

Baylor provided the start-up costs for Lee's research, which later allowed him to compete successfully for a federal grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to increase the size and scope of the research. The grant's funds, however, were not immediately available and left him with a nearly year-long funding gap. The Office of the Vice Provost for Research provided additional funds as part of the Faculty Research Investment Program. Lee was able to buy critical research equipment and supplies, which showed the NIH and other possible funding partners that Baylor was committed, making the research program stronger and more competitive for future funding.

Lee says students are the ones benefiting the most from the new research area. While three graduate students are involved in the research, his team also consists of seven undergraduates. Additionally, in the last three years, 10 students, including six undergraduates, were co-authors on three research papers Lee submitted for publication.

Hung-Ying Shih, a graduate student from Taiwan, says he feels lucky to have the rare opportunity of having his name published as a Baylor undergraduate.

"To me, the biggest benefit is what you learn from the research and the work you do to get published," says Shih, who is now working on a second paper as a graduate student.

Lee says many times students with published papers "get the edge" when potential employers review their résumés.

"This research is trying to answer some of the most basic biological questions," Lee says. "I've been able to involve and attract more and more students to this program because it's very robust, unique and at the same time, simple."