Art Olivia and Paul Urayama in the labArt Oliva, USS and mentor Paul Urayama, associate professor of physics (right).  The physics department opens the fall semester in its news home in Kreger Hall.

Art Oliva

Art Olivia

Using lasers to study how mitochondria act under high pressures

Undergraduate Summer Scholar Art Oliva is working with mentor Paul Urayama, associate professor of physics, on research to help understand the effects of high pressure on cellular metabolism. They use laser-induced fluorescence to study the function of mitochondria — the powerhouses of cells.

In other words, Oliva said, "we are using the most fundamental form of science — physics — to analyze one of the most complex biological systems."

Oliva has been working with Urayama for the past year, having "jumped on the opportunity" after learning about the research from another physics professor.

"It's nice to have biology/microbiology majors in the lab," Urayama said about Oliva, who is a senior microbiology major. "Different majors help generate new ideas."

They study biochemical reactions in yeast cells in stop motion/real time spectra using a pulsed laser. The laser pulse excites NADH molecules within the mitochondria; when the molecules relax they emit light at a certain wavelength. Depending on the environment of the NADH – for example if the molecule is attached to a protein — it emits different wavelengths of light, Urayama explained. NADH, found in all living cells, plays a main role in energy production.

They can test this system to determine if mitochondrial function is affected by high pressures. At a pressure of 20 atmospheres, there is no effect, while at a pressure of 400 atmospheres they see dramatic mitochrondrial dysfunction, Urayama said.

Ultimately this research can lead to further understanding of human diseases related to mitochondrial dysfunction, including cancer.