Huettner Promoted to Professor
Warmest Congratulations! James E. Huettner, PhD, was recently promoted to professor of cell biology and physiology, with a joint promotion to professor of biomedical engineering, retroactive to July 1, 2014. Dr. Huettner’s research focuses on ion channels gated by glutamate receptors, which underlie the transmission of information at excitatory synapses in the central nervous system in humans and vertebrate animals. He has also been investigating what induces embryonic stem cells to differentiate into neurons.
When Jim was an undergraduate, a special issue on neuroscience in the Scientific American sparked his interest in learning how perception, learning and memory work. During his doctoral research at Harvard, he helped to show that the amino acid glutamate was the main excitatory transmitter in the brain and therefore key to neural function. In an early-career breakthrough, he was the first to characterize the properties of one of the three glutamate receptor subtypes, the kainite receptor. More recently, he and his team have succeeded in creating functional chimeric subunits that combine different parts of the kainate receptor with another glutamate subtype, the NMDA receptor. These hybrid receptors are helping them determine which parts of the receptors are required for specific functional properties. Recent structural work in the field of glutamate receptor research by Dr. Huettner and others is providing a clearer idea of how different parts of the receptor interact. This will enable rationally designed mutation experiments to test for function-changing interactions within the receptor and with other cellular proteins that bind and modulate it. Ultimately, it is hoped that glutamate receptor research will allow the design of therapeutic interventions for conditions such as stroke, epilepsy and other disorders in which aberrant glutamate signaling may cause damage or dysfunction in brain circuits.
The Huettner lab, in collaboration with David Gottlieb’s group, has also done exciting work with embryonic stem cells (ESCs). They were one of the first groups to demonstrate that pluripotent embryonic stem cells can be induced to differentiate into functional neurons entirely in vitro. They went on to show that the ES-derived neurons make excitatory and inhibitory synaptic contacts with each other and that retinoic acid regulates several aspects of in vitro differentiation, including neuronal maturity and positional identity.
Jim credits his success to fantastic mentors in his early career who shared their knowledge, enthusiasm and interest in science. He is also grateful to the dedicated students and technicians who have worked in his lab and to his many WU colleagues who have been most generous with their time and advice.