Christopher Vincent Nicchitta
Professor of Cell Biology

  Our laboratory studies the cellular architecture and regulation of protein synthesis, with the goal of understanding how cells regulate the subcellular organization and temporal dynamics of protein synthesis. We focus on mRNA localization - the process by which cells control where and when a protein is synthesized by localizing its mRNA to a discrete location(s) in the cell. Such regulation is critical for many aspects of cell dynamics, cell signaling and cell division. Of the diverse mRNA localization phenomena that have been identified to date, the most prominent is mRNA localization to the endoplasmic reticulum (ER). mRNA localization to the ER operates on an unusually large scale (essentially the entire mRNA transcriptome is partially represented on the ER, with those mRNAs encoding secretory and membrane proteins being highly ER-enriched), and continuously– all newly exported mRNAs undergo selection for translation in the cytosol and/or the ER compartments.

We use a broad array of experimental approaches - biochemistry, cell biology, genomics, and computational biology - and are focusing on several related themes. First, we are working to identify the mRNA-encoded signals used to target mRNAs to the ER as well as the cellular factors that recognize these signals. One mechanism, in which a signal in nascent secretory and membrane proteins directs mRNA recruitment to the ER, has been previously described. It is clear though that there are multiple pathways that direct mRNAs to the ER, including pathways that direct cytosolic and nucleoplasmic protein-encoding mRNAs to the ER. We are also investigating how, once localized, mRNAs are anchored to the ER membrane. In a recent study, we reported that the cohort of mRNAs encoding organelle resident proteins(e.g., nuclear envelope, ER, Golgi, lysosomes, peroxisomes) are localized tothe ER and directly anchored to components of the ER membrane. We are very interested in understanding the cis-encoded anchoring signals and the integral membrane proteins that function in mRNA anchoring to biological membrane, and lastly, how direct mRNA anchoring influences mRNA translation and mRNA stability.

In parallel efforts, we discovered that mRNA translation is under distinct regulatory control in the cytosol and ER compartments, with translation being 3-5 fold more efficient on the ER. These differences are substantial and suggest that mRNA localization to the ER may represent an important post-transcriptional gene expression mechanism. To gain insight into the mechanisms and factors responsible for the compartmental regulation of mRNA translation we are using traditional biochemical approaches (pulse-labeling, cell fractionation, immunoprecipitation, proteomics) as well as genomic approaches (ribosome footprinting, deep sequencing).

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