First, picture how small an individual cell is — it requires a powerful microscope to see. Next, consider how much smaller the components within that cell are. Then, imagine seeking to figure out how one part of that small component works.

And then, imagine how others might benefit from the information.

That’s what Dr. Kristin Dittenhafer-Reed of the Hope College chemistry faculty and her team of Hope student researchers are doing in their study of mitochondria.  It’s an ongoing project that recently received a three-year, $207,901 grant from the National Science Foundation that will provide support through July of 2021.

“The mitochondria can be thought of as the power house of the cell because they generate most of the energy that our cells need to do their jobs,” said Dittenhafer-Reed, an assistant professor of chemistry.  “We’re seeking to understand how very fundamental processes inside the mitochondria work.”

The cell’s energy currency is made through a series of chemical reactions carried out by a number of proteins in the mitochondria.  DNA molecules that reside inside of the mitochondria carry the instructions required to make these protein machines.

“The goal of this research is to investigate how the expression of mitochondrial DNA is regulated, specifically to meet varying energetic demands of a cell,” Dittenhafer-Reed said.

As she and her team find answers, they’ll seek to share their results in refereed scientific journals.  She’s hoping that what her team discovers will one day help other scientists, such as those who are working to cure diseases that occur when the mitochondria don’t function correctly, including neurodegenerative disorders; some forms of cancer; and rare inherited disorders caused by mitochondrial DNA damage.

“We are focused on basic science questions of how biochemical processes are regulated,” she said.  “If we can shed light on how things happen in a healthy context, then others can study how things happen in an unhealthy situation.”

Dittenhafer-Reed has been pursuing her research project, formally titled “Mechanisms of regulation of mitochondrial DNA transcription,” since joining the faculty in 2016.  She does the work collaboratively with Hope students, and anticipates that three will be with her full time during the summers of 2019 through 2021, and four or five part-time during the intervening school year.

Dittenhafer-Reed graduated from Hope in 2009 with a chemistry major with a biochemistry emphasis, and completed her doctorate in biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2014.  Immediately prior to joining the Hope faculty, she was a postdoctoral fellow in the Van Andel Research Institute’s Center for Cancer and Cell Biology for two years.

She has had a dozen articles published in refereed scientific journals, including Biochemistry, Cell Metabolism and the Journal of Biological Chemistry.  She has received recognition including the Denton Teaching Award of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Integrated Program in Biochemistry, selection for the National Institutes of Health Biotechnology Training Program and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.