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Heather Feaga honored as recipient of the 2017 Fred Wedler Outstanding Dissertation Award

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Heather Feaga honored as recipient of the 2017 Fred Wedler Outstanding Dissertation Award

June 5, 2017 – Heather Feaga, a recent graduate of Penn State’s Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Graduate Program, was honored with the 2017 Fred Wedler Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award.  Feaga received notification on May 8th of this year.

Each year , the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, selects one doctoral student to receive the award.  It is given to the student whose dissertation is judged to be the best, based on evaluation criteria given to the student’s dissertation committee.   Each student defending a doctoral dissertation is automatically considered for the award.

Feaga’s love of and interest in microbiology began during her time as a student at the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC).  At the time, Feaga, was working as a short order cook in a restaurant in Ellicott City Maryland, cleaning houses for extra money and taking evening courses at CCBC.  It was Dr. Karen Dalton’s Introduction to Biology class that gave Feaga a new prospective on life.  “She taught us how all organisms are ruled by the same basic rules of biology” said Feaga.  Feaga became completely hooked on the subject, devouring textbooks and eventually earned enough credits to transfer to the University of Maryland Baltimore County for her undergraduate degree and then to Penn State where she took advantage of the advanced course offering and opportunities available to her for her graduate degree.

While at Penn State Feaga was able to teach undergraduates in both formal and informal settings as both a teaching assistant and as a part of the laboratory of Ken Keiler, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology.   “The greatest opportunity I had while at Penn State was the chance to work with a great advisor in Ken Keiler” Feaga said.  “Ken taught me so much about how to be a good scientist.  He not only emphasized careful methods at the bench, but also helped me to improve my written and oral communication skills.”

The Keiler laboratory conducts research on the topic of trans-translation which is required in many pathogens such as the bacterium that causes tuberculosis.  While a graduate student, Ken Keiler, discovered trans-translation as a method to rescue protein synthesis machinery after it had stalled.  Since that time the Keiler laboratory has discovered small molecules that can be utilized to inhibit trans-translation and therefore kill pathogens that need the process in order to survive.

Feaga’s role in the Keiler laboratory was to identify a pathway that some bacteria use as an alternative to trans-translation.  She showed that this alternative ribosome rescue activity was essential in human cells.  Her research showed that mitochondria and organelles in human cells that arose from bacterial cells had very similar ribosomes to that of bacteria.  Her research revealed that these mitochondrial ribosomes are rescued in a very similar way to that of bacterial ribosomes.

Feaga’s dissertation detailed this rescue method and identified the ribosome rescue factor, called ArfB, in the bacterial species Caulobacter crescentus. ArfB rescues ribosomes from truncated mRNAs that lack a stop codon.  Human cells have an ArfB homolog called ICT1, which gets imported into the mitochondria.  Mitochandria are energy producing organelles that used to be free-living bacterial cells, maintained their own genome and also have their own ribosomes.  Mitochandria share a common ancestry with C. crescentus and so ArfB and ICT1 are very similar proteins.  Feaga revealed that ICT1 and ArfB have the same ribosome rescue activity and that the reason that ICT1 is essential in human cells is because of this rescue activity.

Currently Feaga is a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University under the mentorship of Jonathan Dworkin, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology.  There she is studying how protein synthesis is regulated in cells going into and coming out of dormancy.