Ross Buchan

Ross Buchan

Associate Professor, Molecular and Cellular Biology
Associate Professor, BIO5 Institute
Primary Department
(520) 626-1881

Work Summary

The Buchan lab studies how cells regulate gene expression at the level of cytoplasmic messenger RNA (mRNA), the templates of protein synthesis. Areas of particular interest include mRNA-protein bodies called stress granules and P-bodies, which regulate mRNA function, cell signaling, and are implicated in the pathology of viral replication, various cancers and neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS.

Research Interest

The control of gene expression is critical to nearly all aspects of cellular biology, from maintaining basic cell function and identity, to the ability of cells to respond to numerous signals that arise during processes such as development, exposure to pathogens or changes in the cellular environment. A key means by which all cells enact appropriate gene expression responses is to alter the function of messenger RNAs (mRNAs). mRNAs exist in different functional states, dependent upon the proteins bound to them. These states include translation (protein synthesis), repression (off state) and decay. The localization of an mRNAs can also affect its function, thus cells are offered an array of spatial and temporal mechanisms for gene expression control at the mRNA level. mRNAs can also cycle between these different functional states. For example, mRNAs exiting translation often accumulate in distinct mRNA-protein (mRNP) assemblies known as P-bodies and stress granules, from which they may ultimately return to translation again or possibly undergo mRNA decay. Dr Buchan (Ph.D, B.S.) and his lab are particularly interested in the study of P-bodies and stress granules. These conserved, mRNA-protein (mRNP) bodies contain important protein regulators of mRNA decay and translation, as well as signaling proteins, and thus affect gene expression control and cell signaling pathways. In addition, they strongly resemble other important mRNP granules that function in embryogenesis (maternal granules) and memory formation (neuronal transport granules). Finally, stress granules and P-bodies have numerous connections to disease, such as an involvement in RNA viral replication, elevated levels in certain cancer types, as well as the formation of aberrant stress granules in neurodegenerative diseases such as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). The Buchan lab uses yeast and cell line models to study the assembly, disassembly and function of stress granules and P-bodies, and how aspects of stress granule and P-bodies contribute to ALS and forms of cancer


Buchan, J. R., & Parker, R. (2007). Molecular biology. The two faces of miRNA. Science (New York, N.Y.), 318(5858), 1877-8.
Buchan, J. R., Muhlrad, D., & Parker, R. (2008). P bodies promote stress granule assembly in Saccharomyces cerevisiae. The Journal of cell biology, 183(3), 441-55.

Recent results indicate that nontranslating mRNAs in eukaryotic cells exist in distinct biochemical states that accumulate in P bodies and stress granules, although the nature of interactions between these particles is unknown. We demonstrate in Saccharomyces cerevisiae that RNA granules with similar protein composition and assembly mechanisms as mammalian stress granules form during glucose deprivation. Stress granule assembly is dependent on P-body formation, whereas P-body assembly is independent of stress granule formation. This suggests that stress granules primarily form from mRNPs in preexisting P bodies, which is also supported by the kinetics of P-body and stress granule formation both in yeast and mammalian cells. These observations argue that P bodies are important sites for decisions of mRNA fate and that stress granules, at least in yeast, primarily represent pools of mRNAs stalled in the process of reentry into translation from P bodies.

Buchan, J. R., Aucott, L. S., & Stansfield, I. (2006). tRNA properties help shape codon pair preferences in open reading frames. Nucleic acids research, 34(3), 1015-27.

Translation elongation is an accurate and rapid process, dependent upon efficient juxtaposition of tRNAs in the ribosomal A- and P-sites. Here, we sought evidence of A- and P-site tRNA interaction by examining bias in codon pair choice within open reading frames from a range of genomes. Three distinct and marked effects were revealed once codon and dipeptide biases had been subtracted. First, in the majority of genomes, codon pair preference is primarily determined by a tetranucleotide combination of the third nucleotide of the P-site codon, and all 3 nt of the A-site codon. Second, pairs of rare codons are generally under-used in eukaryotes, but over-used in prokaryotes. Third, the analysis revealed a highly significant effect of tRNA-mediated selection on codon pairing in unicellular eukaryotes, Bacillus subtilis, and the gamma proteobacteria. This was evident because in these organisms, synonymous codons decoded in the A-site by the same tRNA exhibit significantly similar P-site pairing preferences. Codon pair preference is thus influenced by the identity of A-site tRNAs, in combination with the P-site codon third nucleotide. Multivariate analysis identified conserved nucleotide positions within A-site tRNA sequences that modulate codon pair preferences. Structural features that regulate tRNA geometry within the ribosome may govern genomic codon pair patterns, driving enhanced translational fidelity and/or rate.

Buchan, J. R., Kolaitis, R., Taylor, J. P., & Parker, R. (2013). Eukaryotic stress granules are cleared by autophagy and Cdc48/VCP function. Cell, 153(7), 1461-74.

Stress granules and P bodies are conserved cytoplasmic aggregates of nontranslating messenger ribonucleoprotein complexes (mRNPs) implicated in the regulation of mRNA translation and decay and are related to RNP granules in embryos, neurons, and pathological inclusions in some degenerative diseases. Using baker's yeast, 125 genes were identified in a genetic screen that affected the dynamics of P bodies and/or stress granules. Analyses of such mutants, including CDC48 alleles, provide evidence that stress granules can be targeted to the vacuole by autophagy, in a process termed granulophagy. Moreover, stress granule clearance in mammalian cells is reduced by inhibition of autophagy or by depletion or pathogenic mutations in valosin-containing protein (VCP), the human ortholog of CDC48. Because mutations in VCP predispose humans to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, frontotemporal lobar degeneration, inclusion body myopathy, and multisystem proteinopathy, this work suggests that autophagic clearance of stress granule related and pathogenic RNP granules that arise in degenerative diseases may be important in reducing their pathology.

Zarnescu, D. C., Buchan, J. R., Liu, G., Coyne, A., Vaughan, S., & Pei, F. (2016). Endocytosis is a key regulator of TDP-43 toxicity and turnover. Nature Communications.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a fatal motor-neuron degenerative disease. ALS-affected neurons exhibit aberrant localization of a nuclear RNA binding protein, TDP-43, into cytoplasmic aggregates, which contributes to pathology via unclear mechanisms. Here, we demonstrate that TDP-43 turnover and toxicity surprisingly depend upon the endocytosis pathway. TDP-43 inhibits endocytosis, and co-localizes strongly with endocytic proteins, including in ALS patient tissue. Impairing endocytosis increases TDP-43 toxicity, aggregation and protein levels, whereas enhancing endocytosis reverses these phenotypes. Locomotordysfunction in a TDP-43 ALS fly model is also exacerbated and suppressed by impairment or enhancement of endocytosis rates respectively. Thus, endocytosis dysfunction may be both an underlying cause of ALS pathology and a new therapeutic target.