SJU Biologist Earns Grant from National Institutes of Health

Funding will subsidize research on the neuroscience of sleep

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

PHILADELPHIA (October 12, 2016) — The National Institute of General Medical Sciences, a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has awarded a three-year, $324,000 grant to Matthew Nelson, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology at Saint Joseph’s University, to conduct research on sleep in Caenorhabditis elegans, a free-living, non-parasitic nematode.

The roundworms are an ideal subject, Nelson says, because they have a simple biological makeup that allows researchers to study complex physiology with single-cell precision.

Nelson’s research deals specifically with the mechanics of how C. elegans enters a sleep state.

“Previous research has determined that a single neuron called the ALA releases neuropeptides, molecules that put the worms to sleep in response to cellular stress, which is induced by extreme temperatures, toxins or injury,” Nelson explains. “It is still unknown what other neurons these neuropeptides act on to cause the behaviors associated with sleep, such as a lack of movement and feeding.”

Using optogenetics — a technique that modifies cells so they can be controlled by light — Nelson hopes to identify these secondary neurons. He and his fellow researchers are developing a novel optogenetic enzyme called IlaC to assist them.

“We are expressing this enzyme in various candidate neurons and then activating it with red light, which produces a signaling molecule, cAMP, that promotes wakefulness in both worms and mammals,” Nelson says. “We predict that this will allow us to identify which neurons are involved in regulating both wakefulness and sleep.”

Nelson hopes that his research will be a building block for future studies on sleep in other species.

“The IlaC tool has great potential for broad use within the neuroscience community,” he says.

In addition to helping Nelson and his team develop the IlaC tool, the NIH grant will yield upgraded lab equipment and fund graduate students and undergraduate Summer Scholars, who will assist with research.

Media Contact

Jeffrey Martin '04, '05 (M.A.), Senior Associate DIrector, University Communications, 610-660-3223,


Founded in 1851 in the Jesuit tradition of academic excellence, Saint Joseph’s University is a top-ranked Catholic University that provides a rigorous, student-centered education. With a total enrollment of 8,500 undergraduate and graduate students, SJU offers a wide array of academic programs designed so that each graduate enters the world with a competitive resume and global perspective. This is achieved through intense academic study led by thought-leading faculty scholars, a comprehensive campus experience and robust study abroad, service-learning, internship and co-op programs. Upon graduation, nearly 100 percent of students are employed, pursuing advanced degrees or volunteering in prestigious service programs. A member of the Atlantic 10 Conference, SJU offers 20 Division I intercollegiate men’s and women’s sports. SJU alumni — over 68,000 strong — provide a powerful network that spans the globe.

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