Gia Voeltz: Redrawing the cell’s floor plan

Cell biologist gives the endoplasmic reticulum a makeover

Gia Voeltz headshot

NEW VIEW  Voeltz's research suggests that the ER clings to cellular parts like spider webs wrapped around flies. 

Courtesy of Gia Voeltz

Gia Voeltz, 43
University of Colorado Boulder | Cell biology
Graduate school: Yale

View the video

Gia Voeltz didn’t set out to rewrite biology textbooks. She just wanted to make a movie.

A cell biologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, Voeltz was studying a humble part of the cell called the ER, for endoplasmic reticulum. In illustrations, it’s the pile of wavy lines floating near the nucleus.

The ER might not be as sexy as the DNA-holding nucleus, or as famous as the mitochondria, the cell’s energy powerhouses. But it’s no slouch. It has a respectable job storing calcium. It’s a nice platform for building fats and proteins. Scientists thought they had it pretty much figured out.

But no one had really seen the ER in action. So Voeltz and colleagues made it glow green and filmed it moving inside living cells. ER tendrils zipped around the cell, the film showed. They reached every corner and crevice, clinging to cellular parts like spider webs wrapped around flies.

ER WEB The endoplasmic reticulum (green) in this monkey cell reaches from the nucleus (lower left) throughout the cytoplasm, bound tightly to mitochondria (blue) and endosomes (red). Patrick Chitwood/Voeltz Lab

“All of a sudden we realized, ‘Wow, everything’s attached! Who would have thought?” she says. Squiggly looking webs bloom in vivid green, showing  “just how beautiful the ER really is,” Voeltz says. “It’s so crazy dynamic and cool.” In 2011, Voeltz and colleagues showed that the ER actually clamps around mitochondria and helps them divide.

“The ER is doing way more than we ever thought,” she says.

Voeltz wasn’t afraid to shake things up. After working on RNA as an undergrad at the University of California, Santa Cruz and then at Yale as a grad student, she jumped into the ER field cold. A talk by Harvard cell biologist Tom Rapoport persuaded her to switch fields and work in his lab.

But Voeltz didn’t know much about cell biology; she had to learn everything from scratch. She thinks that leap out of her comfort zone helped her give the ER a fresh look. “I didn’t have any preconceived notions,” Voeltz says.

By giving the ER such a radical makeover, Voeltz has upended the traditional view of a cell’s floor plan. Textbooks should no longer picture organelles tucked away in their own private corners of the cell, she says. Rather, books should show the ER branching out well beyond the nucleus and binding cellular parts together.

Publishers are taking note. Since Voeltz reported her work, three have included her ER images in their textbooks.

Here’s Gia Voeltz discussing her lab’s research focus and a recent finding about the endoplasmic reticulum.

Credit: Cell Video Abstracts

Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

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