ASU's natural sciences division welcomes 3 new leaders

December 21, 2020

In the natural sciences division of The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University, students and faculty explore the great unknowns of the Earth, our solar system and the universe beyond through groundbreaking research. 

Two new directors and one new chair will soon join the natural sciences division to lead the research being done within ASU’s School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, the School of Molecular Sciences and the Department of Physics. Exterior of Armstrong Hall, home of The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences on ASU's Tempe campus. Download Full Image

“We are eager to welcome these incredibly talented women to The College community,” said Nancy Gonzales, provost pro tempore and outgoing dean of natural sciences.

“They are each highly accomplished scholars with strong track records as leaders in their respective disciplines. They will help us advance our mission of inclusive excellence in research while leading innovative approaches to educate the next generation of leaders in science and math.”

Donatella Danielli, director of the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences

Danielli joins The College after working as a professor of mathematics at Purdue University for nearly 20 years. Her research is in the areas of partial differential equations, calculus of variations and geometric measure theory, with specific emphasis on free boundary problems arising from physics and engineering.

Prior to joining the Purdue faculty in 2001, she held visiting positions at The Johns Hopkins University and at the Institut Mittag-Leffler in Sweden. She was also a visiting fellow at the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Cambridge, United Kingdom, in 2014.

She is a fellow of the American Mathematical Society and has received several awards and distinctions for her teaching, research and leadership including the 2020 Class of Fellows of the Association for Women in Mathematics.

Danielli received a laurea cum laude in mathematics from the University of Bologna, Italy in 1989 and a PhD in mathematics from Purdue University in 1999. Her appointment as director of the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences will begin on Jan. 1, 2021. 


Tijana Rajh, director of the School of Molecular Sciences

Rajh joins ASU from the Center for Nanoscale Materials at Argonne National Laboratory. Her research examines colloidal semiconductor nanocrystals and their integration with biomolecules. 

In her roles as a senior scientist and an Argonne Distinguished Fellow, she conceived, planned and managed the interdisciplinary research that resulted in several successful programs supported by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science and Basic Energy Sciences.

In addition, she served as deputy division director for the Center for Nanoscale Materials and the Nanoscience and Technology Division, where she worked on the vision for scientific growth.

Throughout her career, Rajh has been passionate about leading change in diversity and inclusion in scientific institutions. She has held roles with the Women in Science and Technology steering committee and the Diversity and Inclusion Council of Argonne National Laboratory.

Rajh received a PhD in physical chemistry from the University of Belgrade in Serbia. Her appointment as director of the School of Molecular Sciences begins July 1, 2021. 

Patricia Rankin, chair of the Department of Physics

Rankin comes to ASU after working as a professor of physics at the University of Colorado Boulder. Through her work, she strives to find ways to encourage broader participation in the sciences while enabling multidisciplinary teams to address complex problems like climate change. 

She was the principal investigator for the National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE Institutional Transformation grant, a program with the goal to promote equity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Rankin has held a variety of administrative roles throughout her career including as program officer at the NSF and as the associate dean for the natural sciences and associate vice chancellor for research positions at the University of Colorado Boulder.

She recently chaired the American Physical Societies (APS) Committee on the Status of Women in Physics and is currently an at-large member of the executive committee of the four corners section of the APS. 

She received a bachelor’s degree and a PhD in physics from Imperial College London. Her appointment as chair of the Department of Physics will begin on Jan. 1, 2021.

Emily Balli

Manager of marketing and communications, New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences

The far-reaching effects of mutagens on human health

December 21, 2020

In order to survive, flourish and successfully reproduce, organisms rely on a high degree of genetic stability. Mutagenic agents, which can threaten the integrity of the genetic code by causing mutations in DNA, pose a serious risk to human health. They have long been implicated in a range of genetically inherited afflictions, as well as cancer, aging and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

It now appears that mutagenic threats to a cell’s subtle machinery may be far more widespread than previously appreciated. In a new study, Arizona State University's Michael Lynch and his colleagues demonstrate that DNA mutation itself may represent only a fraction of the health-related havoc caused by mutagens. Michael Lynch is the director of the Biodesign Center for Mechanisms of Evolution and professor at ASU's School of Life Sciences. Download Full Image

The study highlights the ability of mutagenic compounds to also affect the process of transcription, during which a DNA sequence is converted (or transcribed) to mRNA, an intermediary stage preceding translation into protein.

The research findings, which highlight mutagenic transcription errors in yeast, worms, flies and mice, suggest that the harmful effects of mutagens on transcription are likely much more pervasive than previously appreciated — a fact that may have momentous implications for human health.

“Our results have the potential to completely transform the way we think about the consequences of environmental mutagens,” Lynch said.

Professor Lynch is the director of the Biodesign Center for Mechanisms in Evolution and a researcher in ASU’s School of Life Sciences.

The research results appear in the current issue of the journal PNAS.

Cells under threat

Due to their important role in disease processes, mutagenic compounds have long been a topic of intensive scientific study. Such agents include sunlight and other sources of radiation, chemotherapeutics, toxic byproducts of cellular metabolism or chemicals present in food and water.

Mutagens can inflict damage to the DNA, which can later snowball when cells divide, and DNA replication multiplies these errors. Such mutations, if not corrected through DNA proofreading mechanisms, can be passed to subsequent generations and depending on the location at which they appear along the human DNA strand’s 3-billion-letter code may seriously impact health, in some cases, with lethal results.

But even if repaired prior to replication, transiently damaged DNA can also interfere with transcription — the process of producing RNA from a DNA sequence. This can happen when RNA polymerase, an enzyme that moves along a single strand of DNA, producing a complementary RNA strand, reads a mutated sequence of DNA, causing an error in the resulting RNA transcript.

Because RNA transcripts are the templates for producing proteins, transcription errors can produce aberrant proteins harmful to health or terminate protein synthesis altogether. It is already known that even under the best of conditions, transcript error rates are orders of magnitude higher than those at the DNA level.

RNA: A string of errors?

While the existence of transcription errors has long been recognized, their quantification has been challenging. The new study describes a clever technique for ferreting out transcription errors caused by mutagens and separating these from experimental artifacts — mutations caused during library preparation of RNA transcripts through processes of reverse-transcription and sequencing. 

The method described involves the use of massively parallel sequencing technology to identify only those errors in RNA sequence directly caused by the activity of a mutagen. The results demonstrate that at least some mutagenic compounds are potent sources of both genomic mutations and abundant transcription errors.

The circular sequencing assay outlined in the study creates redundancies in the reverse-transcribed message, providing a means of proofreading the resultant linear DNA. In this way, researchers can confirm that the transcription errors observed are a result of the mutagen’s effects on transcription and not an artifact of sample preparation.

The DNA molecule has been shown to be particularly vulnerable to a class of mutagens known as alkylating agents. One of these, known as MNNG, was used to inflict transcriptional errors on the four study organisms. The effects observed were dose-dependent, with higher levels of mutagen causing a corresponding increase in transcriptional errors.

Hidden mistakes may be costly to health

Transcription errors differ from mutations in the genome in at least one vital respect. While DNA replication during cell division acts to amplify mutations to the genome, transcription errors can accumulate in nondividing cells, with a single mutated DNA template giving rise to multiple abnormal RNA transcripts. 

The full effects of these transcription errors on human health remain largely speculative because they have not been amenable to study until now. Using the new technique, researchers can mine the transcriptome — the full library of a living cell’s RNA transcripts, searching for errors caused by mutagens.

While the new research offers hope for a more thorough understanding of the relationship between various mutagens and human health, it is also a cautionary tale.  A preoccupation with mutational defects in DNA sequence may have blinded science to the potential effects of agents that result in transcription errors without leaving permanent traces in the genome.

This fact raises the possibility that a broad range of environmental factors as well as chemicals and foods deemed safe for human consumption are in need of careful reevaluation based on their potential for producing transcriptional mutagenesis. Further, transcriptional errors in both dividing and nondividing cell types are likely key players in the complex processes of physical aging and mental decline.

Richard Harth

Science writer, Biodesign Institute at ASU