Dr. Sue Biggins is Director of the Basic Sciences Division, an HHMI Investigator, and an affiliate Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Washington.
Biggins studies the machinery that dividing cells use to ensure their daughter cells receive the correct allotment of chromosomes. Getting it right is crucial: cells with too many or too few chromosomes can cause cancer, birth defects, or miscarriage.
Much of Biggins's Lab focuses on kinetochores, structures that connect chromosomes to the microtubules that pull them to the appropriate ends of a dividing cell. She has shed light on how cells make sure that these structures – which comprise hundreds of proteins and must be reassembled every time a cell divides – are positioned in the right spot on chromosomes. She also showed how a protein called Aurora B forces cells to stop and fix things if microtubules are incorrectly attached to a kinetochore, before cell division can proceed.
The Biggins Lab purified kinetochores from yeast cells and reconstituted their attachments to microtubules in collaboration with Chip Asbury's Lab for the first time. They went on to make the surprising finding that tension helps to stabilize the attachment of microtubules to the kinetochore. Recently, they identified the first protein required for this activity. Electron microscopy images of the purified kinetochores revealed the structures' shape for the first time. The images showed that each kinetochore has multiple microtubule attachment sites and a ring that encircles the microtubule, which helps explain how they establish and maintain their grip.
As Director for the Basic Sciences Division, Biggins works to ensure researchers have the support and tools they need to pursue their scientific endeavors.