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UC Davis Scientist Honored For Amoeba Nibbling Discovery

A microbiologist is being honored by the Pew Charitable Trust fund for her work with an intestinal parasite and her discovery of how the amoeba eats human cells.

UC Davis microbiologist Katherine Ralston studies a parasite known as Entamoeba histolytica, which lives inside human intestines, causing ulcers and bleeding.

“It can literally dissolve human tissues,” said Ralston on the UC Davis science podcast, Three Minute Egghead. Ralston is an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, College of Biological Sciences.

Scientists previously thought amoebas consume cells by engulfing their food. Rolston found something new.

“What I discovered, really unexpectedly, is that the amoeba actually nibbles on the cells it’s attacking,” Ralston says. “It’s breaking off little bits of that human cell it’s interacting with and it seems that eventually after it’s taking many bites.”

With this new information biologists can set up models and experiments to tackle new questions about this harmful parasite.

“Now that we know that the amoeba nibbles human cells how much does that really drive damage to the intestine?” asked Ralston. “We’re also really interested in exploring mechanistically, how does a cell take a bite? Because it’s really different from engulfing an entire target cell.”

Ralston says if we learn more about the amoeba's process scientists may be able to find ways to prevent the disease.

For her discovery the scientist is being honored as a Pew scholar, which provides funding to young scholars working on advancements in human health.

“In the College of Biological Sciences we are thrilled that Dr. Ralston is being recognized as a Pew scholar. Her research on the mechanisms whereby cells eat other cells is groundbreaking and has major implications for a variety of health topics,” said Peter Wainwright, dean of the college, in a press release.

Ralston said she owes her success to her mentors.

“I’m excited and honored to be joining the Pew scholars,” said Ralston. “I feel very indebted to all the mentors who helped me reach this point, and I think part of my job now is to reinvest that mentorship in my own trainees and give that back.”