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Coleen Murphy's Groundbreaking Research Featured

Written by Kitta MacPherson / Princeton Weekly Bulletin

Coleen Murphy is no daydreamer.

Yet, this practical-minded biologist possesses the boldest of visions, one she insists is rooted in solid science. It may be technologically possible, she believes, to someday stall aging sufficiently so that people can live in their adult prime bodies until they die.

"Why not?" she says, half-defiantly, the trace of a twinkle in her eye.

As an assistant professor in the University's Department of Molecular Biology and at the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, Murphy wouldn't be caught dead saying she is doing anything as dreamy as discovering the fountain of youth. She is an award-winning scientist working in the competitive world of molecular biology, and her specialty is hermaphroditic worms.

But her work examining the life cycle of roundworms known as C. elegans is taking her into uncharted territory. Understanding the genetic mechanisms controlling the beginning and end of a lifeform's reproductive capability could lead to learning how to exert control over it. What if reproductive life could be extended indefinitely? Can other signs of aging -- memory loss, slackening muscles, even wrinkling skin -- be similarly undone?

"She's a pioneer," said Virginia Zakian, the Harry C. Wiess Professor in the Life Sciences at Princeton, who studies the parts of chromosomes that may play a role in the prevention of cancer. "She has discovered that there are aspects of aging in humans that can be modeled in this hermaphroditic worm."

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