The surface of most cells in humans and other multicellular animals sports a single,
antenna-like structure called a primary cilium. This microtubule-based organelle
senses the environment around a cell, gathering incoming signals and transmitting the
information to the cell’s interior. Disruption of cilia structure or function underlies a
broad range of human genetic diseases known as ciliopathies, many of which are marked
by sensory deficits such as hearing and vision loss.
Cilia research is the focus of this year’s DeWitt Stetten Jr. Lecture by Dr. Piali Sengupta
of Brandeis University. Her talk, on Wednesday, Oct. 21 at 3 p.m. in Masur Auditorium,
Bldg. 10, is titled “Form Meets Function: Structurally Diverse Cilia and Their Roles in
Sensory Signaling.” The event is part of the NIH Director’s Wednesday Afternoon Lecture
Series and is sponsored by NIGMS.
Taking advantage of the simple and well-defined
nervous system of C. elegans, Sengupta and her
colleagues have begun to correlate the detailed
structures of primary cilia on the worm’s sensory
neurons—nerve cells that transmit information
such as odors or touch—with their specialized functions.
As in other organisms, the development and
maintenance of correct cilia structure is essential
for the unique sensory properties of each neuron
type in C. elegans.
Sengupta and members of one group in her lab,
nicknamed the Cilia Squad, have shown that cilia
structure and neuronal functions are interdependent
and have identified genetic pathways required for
generating and maintaining the forms and structures
of neuron-specific cilia. In a recent collaboration with
Daniela Nicastro at Brandeis, they reconstructed the
three-dimensional architectures of 50 of the 60 sensory cilia in C. elegans, revealing a wide
range of cilia shapes in unprecedented detail.
Because the mechanisms of cilia formation are remarkably similar across many species,
Sengupta’s work has provided insights into how altered cilia function contributes to disorders
affecting these cell structures, such as Bardet-Biedl and Joubert’s syndromes.
Sengupta is a professor in the department of biology and a member of the National
Center for Behavioral Genomics and the Volen National Center for Complex Systems
at Brandeis, where she has been on the faculty since 1996. She earned an A.B. in biology
from Bryn Mawr College in 1985 and a Ph.D. in biology at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology in 1991. She began studying sensory responses in C. elegans as a postdoctoral
fellow with Cori Bargmann at the University of California, San Francisco.
Sengupta’s honors include a Sloan research fellowship, a Searle scholar award, a
Packard Foundation fellowship and an NIH MERIT award. She serves on the editorial
boards of Genetics, PLOS Biology and eNeuro and is a member of several fellowship and
grant review panels.
For more information or for reasonable accommodation at the lecture, contact
Jacqueline Roberts at Jacqueline.Roberts@nih.gov or (301) 594-6747.—Elia Ben-Ari