Although the U of T Mississauga campus is usually quiet at three o’clock in the morning, there’s a good chance that someone will be hard at work in Hai-Ying Mary Cheng’s laboratory.
“A side effect of studying circadian rhythms is that your own often get disturbed,” says Cheng, an assistant professor in UTM’s Department of Biology. “It’s what happens when you have to collect samples throughout the 24-hour period.”
Cheng is one of three UTM researchers who were recently awarded new Canada Research Chairs (CRC) by the Government of Canada. As the CRC in Molecular Genetics of Biological Clocks, Cheng will continue her work uncovering the genes that are important for regulating the internal clock that helps keep the body in step with real, external time.
“Co-ordinating our bodies’ time with the outside world allows us to make the most efficient use of our energy and ensures our bodies know when to gear up or wind down,” says Cheng. “All organisms have biological clocks.”
One of Cheng’s recent projects examined the role of biological clocks in neural stem cells. Most of the brain’s neurons are produced during embryonic development. Although very few are produced in adulthood, certain regions of the brain, such as the hippocampus, retain the potential to generate new neurons.
Cheng found that cells in the hippocampus have a circadian clock. Removal of these clocks boosted the production of new neurons, even in adulthood.
“It’s amazing that we can affect a biological output – neural production – by affecting the internal clock of the cells,” she says. “This has potentially huge implications for recovery from traumatic brain injury and aging.”
Cheng says the CRC will help support the graduate students in her lab. It also provides a means to continue with her large-scale screens of the biological clock in the brain, studies designed to uncover even more genes that are involved in the biological clock process.
“I’m truly honoured and feel the CRC represents a recognition of the hard work that has been put into this research by my entire team,” says Cheng. “I think this could bring a lot of awareness to the importance of biological time, which affects so many facets of physiology.”
Other UTM researchers were named in the Nov. 14 CRC announcement:
“That four UTM researchers have been recognized as some of Canada’s most promising and innovative thinkers speaks volumes about the high quality of research happening at UTM,” says Professor Bryan Stewart, Vice-Principal, Research. “From humanities to the sciences, UTM researchers such as Mary Cheng, Patrick Gunning, Elizabeth Johnson and Mohan Matthen are helping solve real-world questions that will have a lasting impact on people in Canada and around the globe.”
The Canada Research Chair program provided more than $100 million to support 135 newly awarded and renewed Canada Research Chairs across the country, in areas such as natural sciences and engineering, health sciences, and social sciences and humanities.