Cytoskeletal regulation of cell migration

My research program is focused on understating cell migration. A cell can either be born where it needs to be or it can migrate to reach its final destination. 

My students and I are interested in learning

  1. how cells know when and where to move,
  2. how a cell transmits the signal to move from the outside environment to inside the cell, and
  3. what intracellular factors are required and how they are arranged to provide the structure and mechanical force for the cell to move.

We are interested in these questions as cell migration is essential during development, post-development (i.e. your immune response), and occurs in many disease states (i.e., cancer metastasis). Most of what we currently know about how cells move and navigate their environments comes from studies done on cells taken out of an animal and studied in a dish. We are interested in understanding how cells behave in their native environment —a whole organism.

To study migration in vivo my students and I use C. elegans, a microscopic roundworm that has a short life cycle, is amenable to genetic manipulations, and can easily be imaged using standard microscopy techniques.

Currently, my students and I are completing an RNAi screen to identify cellular factors that are required for a long-distance cell migration in larval C. elegans. Once we establish what factors are required, we will delve into the role and regulation of the factors. Future research will establish if the role of these factors is conserved in cell migration in a vertebrate system, zebrafish.



Neurobiology, neural modulation of behavior

My research program seeks to identify and characterize the types of ion channel proteins present in identified neurons of the medicinal leech. 

Ion channels are important because they determine the electrical properties of a neuron, which in turn affect how the neuron interacts with other cells and ultimately how it impacts animal behavior.  This is just as relevant to the human brain as it is to the leech nervous system. 

We chose the leech as our experimental organism because it has a relatively small number of large and easily accessible neurons.  Traditionally, we have used physiological recordings and pharmacological agents to identify ion channels.  Recently, however, we have begun to employ the tools of molecular biology, specifically a technique called in situ hybridization (ISH), to address this question.  ISH involves the design of highly specific probes to label the messenger RNA molecules that a neuron may express and translate into the ion channel protein.   



Marine ecology, invertebrate biology, behavior, macroecology

I study the biology and ecology of spineless marine animals, with a special focus on marine polychaete worms. 

Polychaetes are hugely diverse, incredibly colorful, and endowed with crazy jaws and tentacles (inspiring movie monsters including both Dune’s sandworms and Tremor’s Graboids!). My work spans multiple scales of organization, from individual cost-benefit tradeoffs of specific behaviors to global patterns in functional diversity for entire faunas. Most recently, my students and I have investigated how mud-dwelling animals are coping with long-term contamination from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. We have also explored interactions between an invasive alga and native invertebrates in the mid-Atlantic US.

Outside of research, my deep concern for the public understanding of science led me to co-found a non-profit organization, CapSci, dedicated to science outreach in New York’s Capital District. In my spare time, I enjoy reading murder mysteries and playing the greatest sport on earth: curling.



Biomechanics, locomotion

My broad research interests are in understanding how and why animals move.

For many animals, locomotor performance determines whether or not an individual is able to collect enough food, evade predators, migrate to new habitats, or attract mates. How do animals interact with the unpredictable environment surrounding them to accomplish these critical behaviors? I am interested in the physical interaction between animals and their environment, and in how physiology and morphology contribute to performance of ecologically relevant behaviors. I focus at the level of the whole organism, asking both how animals interact physically with their environment, as well what are the ecological and evolutionary consequences of these variable interactions. I draw on techniques from many fields to answer questions at the interface of locomotor physiology and behavioral ecology.



Insect physiology, behavior, ecology

I study metabolic physiology, behavior, and ecology in three insect groups: wing-dimorphic field crickets, leafcutter ants, and seed-harvester ants.

I ask

  1. how nutrients affect growth and physiological allocation (i.e., how do different nutrients get to different parts of the body or organism?); and
  2. how nutrition and behavior interact to drive function and growth of social groups, from simple social groups formed by ant queens that cooperate to start new nests, to the complex societies of leafcutter colonies, comprised of thousands of individuals. For example, how do leafcutter ant queens balance between foraging vs. tending their young, to grow a new leafcutter colony?

I do a combination of lab work with captive-reared insects, and fieldwork, primarily in the desert in the southwestern US.



Phylogenetics, genomics, molecular ecology, mammalogy

My research program is centered on understanding the origins of biodiversity in Earth’s tropical regions, with a focus on small mammals like rodents, opossums, and shrews.

I am interested in

  1. understanding the evolutionary and ecological drivers of mammalian speciation and diversification,
  2. modeling the biogeographic history of small mammal clades,
  3. evaluating different methods for building phylogenetic trees, and
  4. describing new taxa.

Although not a core part of my core research program here at Siena, my work associated with the Genomics Education Partnership entails collaborating on peer-reviewed articles and involves many students in research.



Evolution, host-parasite interactions, ornithology

While I enjoy thinking broadly across biological disciplines, my research is centered on bird-parasite interactions and focused on exploring their coevolution, ecology, and behavior.  I use field and lab experiments to determine host and parasite adaptations that have evolved from their antagonistic relationship.  I also aim to determine how ecological interactions between hosts and parasites drive their longer-term coevolution.


Plant physiology, heat-shock proteins


Developmental genetics, morphogenesis, developmental control of sexual dimorphism

The goal of my research is to understand the molecular mechanisms that drive morphogenetic changes during animal development.

Morphogenesis, a critical component of development, is the process by which immature tissues are remodeled to generate the final adult body form. My research incorporates aspects of cell biology, genetics, and developmental biology to provide a detailed description of a developmental remodeling process that occurs in a small roundworm called C. elegans. Specifically, my research focuses on characterizing the genetic and cellular changes that happen within four cells of the C. elegans larval male during a morphogenetic process known as tail tip retraction. We have found that a transcription factor, called DMD-3, functions as the “master regulator” that activates the cellular changes that drive tail tip retraction. We are currently focused on characterizing the “effectors” of morphogenesis that function downstream of DMD-3. These downstream effectors directly alter the cell biological processes, like vesicular transport and cytoskeltal remodeling, that drive morphogenesis. Interestingly, most of the genes and cellular processes that we are studying are conserved in more complex animals. Because of this, our work has the potential to tell us how similar processes occur during human embryonic development.



Genetics, retrotransposons, cellular aging

My research focuses on cellular aging and retrotransposons. Retrotransposons are mobile DNA elements found in genomes of many organisms that can copy themselves and insert those copies at new sites in a genome.

These elements and sequences that they have copied make up about half of our genomes. Using Saccharomyces cerevisiae (baker’s yeast) as a research model, my lab recently demonstrated that 1) retrotransposons can influence cellular aging, and 2) regulation of retrotransposons changes as cells age. I am continuing to pursue this connection between aging and retrotransposons in yeast through cell biology and genetic methods. More broadly, I am interested in how retrotransposons influence cellular functions/survival and other factors that regulate cellular aging. For example, work from my lab recently showed that exposure of yeast cells to low doses of DNA-damaging agents increased their lifespan by improving the ability of cells to enter a temporary dormant state. This is an example of hormesis, a biphasic dose response in which low-level stresses produce positive outcomes and high-level stresses produce negative outcomes, which has been found to influence lifespan in a variety of organisms.



Biofilms, Microbiology, molecular bacteriology, genomics, the evolution of multicellularity and complexity

I am particularly interested in understanding the evolutionary costs and benefits of bacterial behaviors, particularly social behaviors that are advantageous when carried out as a group and not when carried out only by individual cells. This includes biofilm formation, sporulation, social forms of motility, and natural product production.

Members of my laboratory work with laboratory-adapted and wild strains of soil bacteria. Using a variety of microbiological, molecular, and genetic techniques, we seek to understand the effects of specific genes and mutations on biological processes and social behaviors like biofilm formation and swarming motility. My main research program makes use of the model organism Bacillus subtilis. However, in conjunction with students in my microbiology laboratory course, we are also working to identify, characterize, and sequence the genomes of unusual endospore-forming bacteria isolated from our own campus’ soil, to increase our understanding of microbial diversity and the diversity of bacterial social processes.



Protein structure and function, regulation of cellular processes

For most of my Siena career, my research focused the regulation G protein-coupled receptor (GPCR) signaling by GPCR kinase 2 (GRK2).

We studied hormone and neurotransmitter-induced cell signaling using techniques such as mammalian cell culture, intact cell phosphorylation assays, immunoblotting, in vitro kinase assays, and BRET-based recruitment assays.

More recently I have sought to incorporate course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs) for my students in Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics. As a member of the Genomics Education Partnership (GEP) and Bridging Research and Education Workshop (BREW), I can now offer students independent projects in genomics and proteomics, in Drosophila and yeast experimental systems, and covering scientific questions in the areas of cell signaling and the regulation of gene expression.


Nina Zanetti, Professor

Developmental biology, embryology, histology education

Over the years, I have done research on ciliary motility, development of skeletal tissues, tissue interactions in vertebrate limb development, development of tissue patterns in the vertebrate limb, the role of the cytoskeleton in cell differentiation, and the distribution of endocrine receptors in developing embryos. 

Students in my courses continue to use chick embryology techniques and basic histology to explore questions of development, organogenesis, and tissue differentiation and structure. 

Currently, my primary focus is using digital photomicrography to enhance education in histology-related fields, on a nation-wide level. I have published photomicrographs and have served as a “histology consultant” for several popular textbooks and lab atlases, and I regularly present workshops on methods for incorporating histology and pathology into undergraduate curricula. In addition, I publish and host an online interactive case study series   (“the Histology Challenge”) for international professional society, as an ongoing educational opportunity in histology and basic histopathology for college/university instructors who would like to include these topics in their undergraduate courses.