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The Levinson Emerging Scholars Program

Trung Phan - Biology (Molecular, Cellular, & Developmental)

Trung Phan Trung’s strong interest in reproductive biology and developmental genetics emerged during the summer of his freshman year when he began researching Drosophila fertilization under the guidance of Dr. Barbara Wakimoto. Confronted with an exciting and novel research question about the enigmatic proteins that regulate sperm activation, Trung was inspired to investigate the molecular events that facilitate sperm development and function. His current project focuses on the characterization of an interesting protein that plays a role in acrosome biogenesis in Drosophila and has a complex evolutionary origin. With the generous support of the Levinson Emerging Scholars Program, Trung hopes to take his project to completion and share his findings with the scientific community to contribute to our understanding of species reproduction. Trung’s involvement with undergraduate research has enriched his knowledge of biology and helped him develop habits of independent learning and critical thinking that will further his growth as a scientist. After graduating, Trung intends to pursue a career in medicine that will integrate his training as a cellular and molecular biologist.

Mentor: Dr. Barbara Wakimoto, Biology

Project Title: Analyzing the Critical Role of Pskl, a Sperm Membrane Protein, in Drosophila Fertilization

Abstract: The process of sexual reproduction in plants and animals is both a fascinating and mysterious property of life. During fertilization, the sperm delivers the paternal genetic material to the egg to begin formation of an embryo. However, the mechanisms that regulate sperm and egg interactions, such as gamete membrane fusion, are not well understood at the molecular level for any organism. The goals of this project are to identify and characterize the proteins that mediate sperm and egg interactions in Drosophila, an ideal model organism to study fertilization due to its rapid reproduction, short generation times, and genetic traits that are easy to observe. In Drosophila, an uncharacterized protein called Pop-sickle (Pskl) is of particular interest because pskl mutants are male sterile, despite having motile sperm. Additionally, Pskl has a structural region similar to GCS1, a sperm-specific protein required for sexual reproduction in flowering plants, malaria parasites, and alga. To better understand Pskl’s function in fertilization, we propose a two-fold approach to identify the protein’s site of action and its functional domains. The first experiment will subcellularly localize Pskl in developing spermatids by expressing a version of the protein marked with a fluorescent tag. In the second experiment, we will generate internal pskl deletions in the GCS1-like region and another region similar to a family of protist proteins. This will enable us to determine if these domains are necessary for normal Pskl function. Taken together, the results from this study will help clarify the molecular mechanisms required for sexual reproduction and ultimately contribute to the development of reproductive therapeutics that will treat male sterility. Furthermore, studying Pskl’s role in sperm-egg interactions might provide insight into mechanisms of fertilization that are evolutionarily conserved across diverse species.