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‘Our research shows mitochondria can actively control growth and division of cells’

Kasturi Mitra, Associate Professor at Ashoka University, elaborates on her research that will have a significant impact in understanding the contribution of mitochondria in Regenerative and Cancer Biology

My research career did not stem from an early passion for science or even a specific research interest. I am an artist and I did not have a scientific mind at all. I wanted to be in performing arts, but I could not continue training as an artist because of my sensitive vocal cords.

Looking at my argumentative behaviour my father pushed me to take up science and it was during my doctoral training that I fell in love with the thrill of science, and realized there is a lot more to understand about the cellular powerhouses mitochondria. 

In my postdoctoral research, I initiated mitochondrial cell biology research in the lab of Dr. Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz, Ph.D., at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Then I pursued research in mitochondrial bioenergetics regulation with Robert Balaban, Ph.D., at the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, before launching my own lab at University of Alabama at Birmingham.

I have always been fascinated with how we humans operate on a daily basis and that’s why I chose to do an Honours in Human Physiology from Presidency College, Kolkata. Currently, I am studying the Structure-Function relationship of mitochondria, given the structure of these multifaceted organelles can vary within one cell or between types of cells. 

My current research is a continuation of my postdoctoral studies at the Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz lab at the NIH who specialize in microscopy. In her lab, I wanted to learn microscopy while studying mitochondria. Jennifer’s lab had never studied mitochondria before. At that time the field was interested in one particular structure of mitochondria which is one extreme in the spectrum of mitochondrial structures. I questioned if one extreme exists, why not look for the existence of the other extreme in the spectrum of mitochondrial structures. This structure was very much like the connected branches of the bare trees that I got to see everywhere in my first fall season in the Washington DC area. My research identified that end of the spectrum, which we named as ‘hyperfused’ mitochondria. My lab continues to study the functional significance of hyperfused mitochondrial structure and its different variations.

Structure-Function Relationship of Mitochondira

Mitochondria in our cells (eukaryotes) are thought to have originated from engulfing bacteria (prokaryotes) through a process called endosymbiosis during the course of evolution. In the current world, we find that all eukaryotic cells have mitochondria in some form or the other. Our research shows mitochondria can control the growth and division of cells. Thus, we anticipate that our research will unfold key aspects of how mitochondria might have become indispensable for the eukaryotic cells during their evolution. 

Our research findings will also have a significant impact in understanding the contribution of mitochondria in regenerative biology as well as in cancer biology. We are poised to extend our research towards identifying mitochondria based targeted cancer therapy. My research is at the crossroads of diverse fields in biology, so navigating between the fields in a way to make our research equally accessible and understandable is the biggest challenge. 

However, we anticipate the journey to be fruitful and constructive here at Ashoka University considering that all the departments are strategically placed amidst other allied departments to carry out multidisciplinary research.  

This article is extracted from an interview conducted by Dr Yukti Arora; edited by Saket Suman

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Study at Ashoka