Natalie Pitts enjoys skydiving as well as crustacean research.

Name: Natalie Pitts

Education: B.A. in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology and Psychology with a minor in Neuroscience at the University of Colorado-Boulder; Ph.D. Candidate in the Cell and Molecular Biology program at Colorado State University

Hometown: Aurora, Colorado

Career goal: Work in pharmaceutical development and develop drugs to treat Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).

Favorite Memory: Receiving a travel grant to work at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory in California. “I had been actively doing lab work, but when I got confirmation that I got my first travel grant to go out to Bodega Marine Laboratory in California, that was pretty cool,” Natalie remembers. “That was a pretty good moment for me.”

Project: Analysis of nitric oxide production in the sinus gland of the green crab, Carcinus maenas, using a copper-based fluorescent ligand

Natalie worked at the Bodega Marine Laboratory to study how crabs regulate the release of Molt Inhibiting Hormone (MIH), which stops crabs from molting. She studies the eye stalk nerve cell bundles, or ganglia, that produce the MIH neuropeptide and looks at how the nearby sinus gland releases the MIH into the crab’s bloodstream. Learning how the hormone moves from production to distribution helps scientists understand how the crab controls molting.

Transport organelles called synaptic vesicles, which act like cellular delivery trucks, bind to the membrane of the sinus gland and release MIH into the crab’s blood. Natalie looks at how the vesicles bind and what controls them. Experiments suggest that nitric oxide gas controls the vesicles, and Natalie works on a method to image, localize and detect nitric oxide production in the sinus gland. A copper fluorescent ligand glows green when it binds to nitric oxide, which allows her to see the amount of nitric oxide in the tissue and quantify it.

Although nitric oxide is a gas, it sticks around in the blood. Natalie hypothesizes that the gas binds to other molecules called heme proteins that release the gas slowly over an extended period of time.

Comparing transcriptional changes of the genes nitric oxide synthase, guanylyl cyclase beta, crustacean hyperglycemic hormone, and molt inhibiting hormone, during the molt cycle in the eyestalk ganglia of the green shore crab (Carcinus maenas) and the blackback land crab (Gecarcinus lateralis)

Natalie looks at the changing levels of mRNA, a messenger molecule that brings genetic directions to other parts of a cell to make proteins, throughout the molt cycle. Two of the genes she studies, nitric oxide synthase (the enzyme that produces nitric oxide in the eyestalks) and guanylyl cyclase beta, may control regulation and release of the neuropeptides Crustacean Hyperglycemic Hormone (which regulates glucose in the blood and is involved in the molt process) and Molt-Inhibiting Hormone (MIH). This project shows Natalie how the mRNA instructions change throughout the molt cycle, which in turn changes the amount and types of protein produced.

Examining differences in the localization of nitric oxide synthase and molt inhibiting hormone in three decapod crustacean species (G. lateralis, C. maenas, and C. magister)

Natalie researches where nitric oxide synthase and MIH exist in the molt cycle in three different crab species. Nitric oxide synthase produces nitric oxide, which scientists believe may regulate the release of MIH, which in turn regulates molting. For each crab, she takes eyestalk ganglia tissues from different points in the molt cycle and preserves them, then embeds them in wax blocks and cuts them thin. She then uses an immunohistochemistry technique to see the amount and location of nitric oxide synthase and MIH in each sample.