Feb. 1, 2010
Jeremy Craig, 404-413-1357
ATLANTA - Growing up, Casonya Johnson wanted to be a science fiction writer. Now, the associate professor of biology is authoring a new study that could unravel some of the real mysteries of human development.
Johnson recently received a $516,632 federal stimulus grant from the National Science Foundation to explore the genes of Caenorhabditis elegans, a transparent roundworm only a millimeter long. Lessons learned from examining the genes of the tiny worm can give insight into genes affecting human development and birth defects.
C. elegans might be small, but it has cellular mechanisms similar to humans.
Johnson is investigating a group of the worm's genes that regulate the expression of other genes, determining which ones are turned off and on.
Genes are involved in the creation of proteins, which are in turn involved in development. When these genes are mutated, birth defects - such as including abnormal development in the brain and the skeletal muscles - or prenatal death can result.
"We know what the proteins involved do, but we just don't know how they do it," Johnson said. "It might be that when the regulatory protein that we study is mutated, other proteins don't function as they should.
"We can identify those target proteins in the worms and then we can find out what the companion protein is in humans," Johnson said. "If that protein is not functioning properly, we may eventually be able to figure out how to supply it in a type of gene therapy."
With a devotion to inquiry, Johnson's path toward her career as a scientist was not straight line. At first, her interests were more along a literary bent, with a desire to pursue a writing career.
"When I was in school, I remember that I thought that I couldn't wait to get out, and that I was never going to study this again," Johnson said. "I didn't know until about the third year of undergraduate training that science would be for me."
But the self-described closet Star Trek fan took her interest from reading and writing mysteries and science fiction into pursuing science fact.
"Science fiction was my first exposure to the "what if," and to go out and explore things, trying to figure out how things work and why they work that way," Johnson recounted. "I think that research is one big mystery and a kind of science fiction novel all mixed into one."
Additionally, the grant allows her to share her love of unraveling scientific mysteries with students and teachers.
A part of the grant is devoted to developing a summer workshop for high school teachers, leading to workshops where teachers can teach science projects to students related to C. elegans. The grant also provides funds to supply Georgia State's Bio-Bus - a mobile lab used statewide to get students interested in science - with equipment to perform those experiments.
"I hope it will attract children to consider scientific careers, and even if they don't really want to become a scientist in the end, they will at least have some exposure to what real science is like," Johnson said.