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Profile of Vito Mennella

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Dr. Vito Mennella, PhD

By: Mackenzie Hill-Strathy

Dr. Vito Mennella, PhD

  • Scientist, Cell Biology
  • Assistant Professor, Department of Biochemistry, University of Toronto

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I am originally from Italy. I completed my undergraduate degree in Rome at University La Sapienza. I got firsthand experience in science when carrying out experiments for my thesis on multidrug resistance in a tumour immunology laboratory at the National Institute of Health in Italy. After a short time as a research associate in the same lab, I became a Fulbright fellow and moved to the United States to pursue my graduate studies.

As a graduate student I followed my interest in finding molecular targets for therapeutic application and joined Dr. David Sharp’s lab at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. There, I worked on a research project on a family of motor proteins that carry materials or cargo around the cell. This work had a direct impact in understanding cell mechanisms, and was an important development in eliminating this class of motor proteins from a list of targets for anticancer drug development. This educated me on the fundamental impact of basic research in directing industry and healthcare efforts.

To complement my background in mechanistic cell biology with biochemical and structural approaches, I joined the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) laboratory of Dr. David Agard at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) as a post-doctoral fellow.

I was hired as a scientist at SickKids just this year, and began in March 2014.

2. What are you researching right now?
Right now I am interested in the concept of how organelles remodel in cells and how we can design new organelle properties. I work with the centrosome, an organelle that serves as an organizing centre within the cell, and also regulates the cell-cycle. During my postdoctoral work I contributed to changing the textbook view of the PCM, a complex assembly of proteins within the centrosome. For over a century this PCM structure was considered amorphous, meaning it was lacking a clear structural organization. We discovered a fibrous scaffold that works as an infrastructure to build the complex matrix of the PCM. To do this, I have developed a strategy based on the combination of two super-resolution microscopy techniques—Structured Illumination Microscopy (SIM), Stochastic Optical Resolution Microscopy (STORM), and image averaging— to build a molecular map of centrosomes. This creates a close up image of the protein organization in the PCM with a resolution of just a few nanometers. This approach can now be applied to many organelles and structures in cells.

Besides being important for the cell cycle, centrosomes are integral components of cilia which are sensory organelles that sense air and liquid flow in the lungs, kidney and other tissues. Right now I am specifically looking at the process of how centrosomes remodel to allow the formation of cilia. Centrosomal proteins are mutated in a large class of hereditary diseases, collectively known as ciliopathies. These are characterized by many developmental defects including polidactily and decreased organ functionality.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
There are so many scientists that I like, it is hard to declare a favourite. I greatly admire Bruce Alberts, a professor of Biochemistry of UCSF who served as the president of the National Academy of Science and Editor of Science magazine. He has been a strong advocate for basic research in Washington, DC. One of his commentaries for the journal Cell about cells as a collection of protein machines, was really inspiring to me and my generation of scientists. His commentary helped me realized that I wanted to study large macromolecular assemblies, which is why I wanted to study at UCSF. I am also struck by the extraordinary scientific legacy left by Tony Pawson here in Toronto. Tony passed away last year, but is remembered for his high quality science and great enthusiasm. He had a unique approach to science, which the academic community in Toronto continues to celebrate.

4. What in your opinion is the most important scientific breakthrough and why?
There are two recent technological developments that are changing the field of cell biology: super-resolution fluorescence microscopy and cryo-electron microscopy. These two new technologies allow you to investigate the structure of large protein assemblies, which are the real functional elements of cells. Taking the car as an analogy for a cellular structure, not long ago we could see just the car itself. Now we can see the inside of the car and how all its moving parts are working together. We can study an organelle in a cell down to a single molecule and its individual domains. These two technologies are allowing us to look both at finer details and at how all the parts come together for the big picture. In a way, we are at the dawn of a new protein revolution in cell biology.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
When I was in college I played competitive sports and I still like to continue playing as often as I can. I play indoor volleyball, beach volleyball and I love soccer, as you would expect from an Italian. I also practice yoga on a weekly basis. I am very interested in cinema, I love watching movies in theatres, especially in ones as beautiful as the TIFF building in Toronto, and at film festivals when I have the opportunity. I also like to prepare meals for others and perfect recipes of the meals I enjoy. In my spare time, I also like to experiment with making my own beer and roasting coffee.

6. Why science?
In Rome I studied classics in high school. I really enjoyed reading philosophy and my late night Latin or Greek translation sessions. Then, in my third year I developed an unexpected interest in chemistry, which contrasted from my previous studies. Since that time, chemistry and now biochemistry have been my main interests and my passion for them has never ceased!

7. Why SickKids?
SickKids is one of the best research hospitals in the world. As a scientist it gives you the rare opportunity to work side by side with clinicians to directly apply your research studies to clinical problems. This process of the cross-fertilization of knowledge and approaches allows for the merging of two apparently separate worlds. This collaborative effort can produce very insightful results for science and the care of patients.

SickKids is a place with a strong sense of community, leadership and scientific direction. I had a great experience settling in and organizing my lab. The Research Institute is full of excellent facilities, which give scientists the opportunity to practice their best science.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
It is critical right now to develop a unified view of the organization of centrosomes. For many years, understanding the architecture of this organelle has been difficult because of its biochemical complexity. We know most of the players and the components, but now we need to put everything together. It is really exciting to me, that all the pieces are in place to make greater discoveries into the mechanical principles behind how everything works. This unified view will lead to a better understanding of how centrosomal proteins can cause profound results for human development.

9. What are you reading right now?
I read the New Yorker every week, and have a stack of books by my bed that are taking me more time to finish than I would like. I am currently reading a reportage on Mexican guerrillas by an American journalist named John Reed. I am also reading a book about the travels of Kermit Lynch, an importer of French wines that has a wine shop in Berkeley, California. So far this is a really nice story; it is an interesting way of looking at wine and recollections of Lynch’s trips to France. It stresses that everything is best when you go back to the roots and that there is no need to make food and drinks artificial.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
Firstly, I would recommend testing out different science disciplines and laboratory cultures. Science can be experienced so differently depending on where and how you are practicing it. It is important to know where you best fit in. Learn a variety of skills and try to integrate them into your work. I would also recommend finding good colleagues with whom you can have valuable scientific discussions and do great experiment with. Lastly, work hard, but remember to have fun and get enough sleep!

11. What does the SickKids' Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning (PGCRL) mean to you?
The architecture of the PGCRL manifests the spirit of the institution: communal areas for interaction, open laboratory spaces and the efficient use of resources. The building was designed for efficiency; the building and facilities were well planned, putting science at the center. It makes you feel that this is a very comfortable environment to conduct science. In addition, the PGCRL is a very beautiful building, with a great amount of light; it is a great place to work!

November 2014

Scientific profile