On Sabbatical at Johns Hopkins All Children's, an Eckerd College Biochemist Investigates "HOTAIR"

Biochemist Crystal Young-Erdos, Ph.D., brings specialized RNA expertise to an important study.

Crystal Young-Erdos, Ph.D.

Crystal Young-Erdos, Ph.D.

Published in Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital - Winter 2022

Researchers at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital’s Institute for Fundamental Biomedical Research (JHACH IFBR) are part of a team investigating health risks for women with two different patterns of body fat deposition. It is known that women with excess subcutaneous adipose tissue located in the abdomen (A-FAT), creating an “apple-shaped” body, are at greater risk for obesity-related health problems than women who weigh the same but carry excess hip and thigh subcutaneous fat (G-FAT), the kind of fat that creates a distinctive “pear” body shape.

Their current efforts are focused on gaining a better understanding of the molecular differences between the two different body shapes created by A-FAT and G-FAT and how each body shape is related to the prevalence of metabolic disease.

“In our search for the reasons behind health problems related to body fat patterning, we found that lower body fat — G-FAT, but not upper body fat — A-FAT —expresses a long noncoding RNA (LncRNA) called HOTAIR,” says Timothy F. Osborne, Ph.D., associate dean for basic research and director of the IFBR. “We hypothesized that HOTAIR interacts with proteins in the adipose cell nucleus to selectively alter expression of key adipose related genes.”

To further investigate G-FAT and HOTAIR, the IFBR researchers enlisted the help of Crystal Young-Erdos, Ph.D., a biochemist from nearby Eckerd College who has significant research experience working with RNA binding proteins, which fits well with this project.

“One of our missions has been to link-up with scientists from local universities and colleges to form strong partnerships that expand our research efforts and provide a tangible connection with our academic neighbors,” Osborne explains. “We reached out to Dr. Young-Erdos, who is quickly rising in her academic career and she was eager to leverage her research interests to our studies on HOTAIR.”

What is “HOTAIR”?

“HOTAIR is found in the G-FAT adipose depot of both apple- and pear-shaped women, but it is not found in A-FAT,” Young-Erdos explains. “A major hypothesis is that the G-FAT from apple-shaped women is unable to expand to store excess calories as is observed in pear-shaped women. Data from the Osborne lab and their collaborators at the AdventHealth’s Translational Research Institute suggests HOTAIR plays a role in regulating gene expression. A better understanding of how it does so could help achieve the therapeutic goal of improving the functioning of G-FAT in apple-shaped women, to decrease the prevalence of metabolic disease in this vulnerable population.”

The HOTAIR lncRNA gene is located on chromosome 12q13.13 and the lncRNA is over 2,000 nucleotides in length. It was first identified for its role in cancer progression and metastasis where it influences cancer cell shape and movement. “We think it plays a similar role in regulating changes in cell shape and movement associated with adipose tissue expansion and Dr. Young-Erdos’s work will help us understand more about the fundamental biochemical mechanism for HOTAIR function,” explains Osborne. 

What is a Biochemist?

“As a biochemist, I am interested in understanding the chemical processes and transformations that occur in living organisms,” Young-Erdos explains. “In my lab at Eckerd College, we use biochemical and molecular biology approaches and the simple baker’s yeast as an experimental model system to better understand how ribosomes — the “machinery” responsible for protein synthesis in all cells —are assembled.” Ribosomes are composed of a mixture of RNAs and proteins that work together to synthesize proteins in the cytoplasm of cells through a process termed “translation.” It is hypothesized that HOTAIR also interacts with proteins to synthesize RNA in the cell nucleus, through a process termed “transcription.” Thus, Dr. Young-Erdos’ expertise with ribosomes will be very helpful for her studies on HOTAIR,” explains Osborne. 

Young-Erdos teaches both introductory chemistry and biochemistry at Eckerd College. “I like teaching general chemistry,” she says. “And two years later, I get many of the same students in biochemistry. A significant number of these students are interested in learning more about current research in biochemistry and they work with me in my research lab at Eckerd.” She will also help guide interested Eckerd College undergraduates into research internships in the labs at Johns Hopkins All Children’s.

The Two Passions of Crystal Young-Erdos

“As a scientist, I recognize the significance of collaboration and communication,” Young-Erdos says. “I emphasize the need for ‘the two Cs’ both in the classroom and in the research laboratory.”

When she received her Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Michigan in 2012, Young-Erdos knew she wanted to teach biochemistry in a department of chemistry at a small liberal arts college because of her interest in undergraduate education.

She also valued being involved in important research, especially “translational research” in an academic setting where the goal is to take basic, health-related research out beyond the lab into the world to those who will benefit from it.

“My current experience working with the IFBR team is giving me the opportunity to model the significance of collaboration and communication,” Young-Erdos explains. “I can apply my previous research, make contributions to a high-impact translational research project, and also connect Eckerd student interests when I make this science accessible by communicating my new knowledge to students in my undergraduate classes.”

The Road from Michigan to Florida

A native of Western Pennsylvania, Young-Erdos majored in chemistry as an undergraduate at Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, Pennsylvania. Completing her bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 2006, she headed off to the University of Michigan for graduate work in chemistry and completed a Master of Science in chemistry in 2008. Then, jumping right into the Ph.D. program in chemical biology, she was on track to finish her doctoral work in 2012.

“I was always interested in merging biology and chemistry,” she recalls. For her doctoral dissertation she carried out a project that included gaining a better understanding of the roles of an RNA-binding protein using yeast genetics.

The pathway to her Ph.D. appeared to be a direct one, but she detoured halfway through her dissertation when her doctoral adviser suddenly left the University of Michigan and moved to Florida to work in the Cancer Biology Department at The Scripps Research Institute in Jupiter.

To maintain a close working relationship with her adviser, Young-Erdos also left Michigan and began working at Scripps. With her dissertation finished in 2012, she traveled back to the University of Michigan to defend it.

With her Ph.D. in biochemistry in-hand, Young-Erdos went on to become a visiting assistant professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at The College of Wooster in Ohio. Two years later, she pursued a tenure-track faculty position. Having found the weather in Florida to be most agreeable, she included the Sunshine State in her search and found Eckerd College, in St. Petersburg, in 2014.

Interested in collaborating with scientists in an academic lab and hoping to help develop internship programs for Eckerd College students, Young-Erdos and Johns Hopkins All Children’s IFBR discovered each other in 2021, also through a bit of serendipity. Suddenly, her two C’s — collaboration and communication — came together as neatly as had her dual interests in chemistry and biology.

“I have always been interested in high-impact teaching practices to enhance the educational experiences of my undergraduate students,” she explains. “In that effort I have developed ‘Course-embedded Undergraduate Research Experiences (CURES)’ in both my introductory chemistry course and the advanced level biochemistry courses to expose students to real, hands-on research experiences in my Eckerd labs.” She therefore hopes this sabbatical experience will enhance research opportunities for her Eckerd students in the classroom, too.

“We are very happy to have Dr. Young-Erdos working with us and adding her expertise in biochemistry to our efforts,” Osborne says. “Dr. Young-Erdos was able to take the time through her Eckerd College sabbatical credits and we are currently working on plans that will allow her to continue to work with us when her sabbatical is over. Not only does she have expertise in RNA-protein interaction chemistry, but she also has a strong work ethic, excellent time management skills, is a great mom to two small children and an avid long-distance runner.”