Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2018

Access Restrictions

Access restricted until 07/03/2020

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In


First Advisor

Prahlad, Veena

First Committee Member

Weiner, Joshua A

Second Committee Member

Green, Steven H

Third Committee Member

Phillips, Bryan T

Fourth Committee Member

Rutkowski, Thomas


The ability to accurately predict danger and implement appropriate protective responses is critical for survival. Environmental fluctuations can cause damage at the cellular level, leading to the misfolding and aggregation of proteins. Such damage is toxic to cells: in age-related neurodegenerative diseases like ALS, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s Diseases, the accumulation of damaged proteins in the brain ultimately leads to neuronal cell death and disease onset. To date, there is still no cure to combat the progressive degeneration and cell death seen in the brains of patients. Cells within an animal possess defense programs to minimize protein damage. One such defense mechanism is the activation of a program called the Heat Shock Response, which increases production of protective proteins known as heat shock proteins (HSPs). These HSPs act as molecular chaperones to assist with the clearing out of damaged proteins. This program is implemented by a conserved transcription factor, Heat Shock Factor 1 (HSF-1). However, in brains of patients with degenerative diseases, this protective mechanism, for reasons yet unknown, is not constantly activated.

My thesis has involved the discovery of innate mechanisms that exist in organisms to activate this cellular protective mechanism against protein misfolding. My research, using the model organism Caenorhabditis elegans, has shown that the protective heat shock response in the cells of the animal can be triggered through neurohormonal signaling. The neurohormonal signaling that I am studying is one that is highly conserved across all organisms from plants to insects to mammals – serotonergic signaling. The stimulation of serotonergic signaling appears sufficient to activate the Heat Shock Response, even in the absence of real damage. In fact, the neuronal release of serotonin facilitates a pre-emptive upregulation of protective genes in the animal, which we have observed to be able to reduce the accumulation of damaged proteins in a C. elegans model of Huntington’s Disease. Additionally, I have seen that anticipating danger can enhance the animal’s stress response in a serotonin-dependent manner, thus facilitating better survival against a subsequent insult that can cause protein damage.

Together, these studies present the novel possibility of protection against neurodegenerative disease via modulation of neurotransmission and/or neurosecretion. They also allow for understanding how sensory inputs are coupled to gene expression under stressful conditions. I hope to understand the mechanism by which animals adapt to changes in their environment by coordinating their sensory input with changes in behavior and gene expression.


C. elegans, Heat Shock Factor, molecular chaperones, neuronal regulation of cellular stress response, protein misfolding, stress response


xiii, 185 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 171-185).


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Copyright © 2018 Felicia Kye-Lyn Ooi

Available for download on Friday, July 03, 2020

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