How Cells Manage Stress: Dr. Gustavo Silva

Headshot of Dr. Gustavo Silva, man with dark hair and glasses, wearing a blue shirt

In this episode of BioGist, Christina Shin, a Duke student who recently graduated in the class of 2021 with a major in Art History and minor in Chemistry, interviews Dr. Gustavo Silva, an Assistant Professor in the Biology department at Duke University. Dr. Silva shares how studying oxidative stress is like repairing water damage on a house. Listen to hear more about regulating stress (on the cellular level, of course) and picking up new habits during the pandemic!

To find out more about Dr. Silva, visit his lab’s website at, and follow his lab’s work on Twitter @thesilvalab.



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cells, proteins, stress, oxidative stress, stress response, lab, research, damage, repair, fascinating, duke university, biology, ubiquitin, DNA, diseases, curiosity, oxidizers


Christina Shin, Dr. Gustavo Silva

Christina Shin  00:00

Welcome to BioGist, where we give you the gist of biology at Duke University. I'm Christina, a senior at Duke. And today I'm here with Dr. Gustavo Silva. Dr. Silva, thank you so much for joining me.

Dr. Gustavo Silva  00:12

Hi, Christina. Nice meeting you. It's a pleasure to be here.

Christina Shin  00:16

So Dr. Silva, what do you study?

Dr. Gustavo Silva  00:18

So in my lab, we study how cells respond to stress. And I'm not talking about emotional stress, I'm talking about physical and chemical stress that pretty much every single cell will face in the course of its life. And to make sure that the cell is going to survive and going to do well and divide and grow, they need to have mechanisms to protect themselves against stress. And if they can't, that can be the causation of a lot of diseases and problems, let's say with plants, and fish and animals. So it's really important to understand how cells responds to stress, so we can actually control how they're going to do, you know, in other environments as well.

Christina Shin  00:56

That sounds really interesting. I was also wondering, is there a specific type of stress that you specialize in?

Dr. Gustavo Silva  01:03

Yeah, we do compare a bunch of different stresses. But the one that the lab studies the most is oxidative stress. So we study oxidative stress in yeast and in human cells as well. So oxidative stress is one of the most prevalent stresses that can be generated by a lot of different sources. So it can damage lipids and can damage proteins, it can damage your DNA, leading to a lot of mutations. So it's really important that the cells have a complete arsenal of protection defense against those stresses.

Christina Shin  01:33

That was a great description. I'm wondering if you could potentially give us an analogy of what oxidative stress might be like?

Dr. Gustavo Silva  01:43

Is it an interesting question, I'm going to try to come up with something here to see if it makes sense. Imagine your house, right, you have your house, and you have all the components that make it work, right, so you have the walls of your house, that would be very similar to either the cell wall of a plant cell or the plasma membrane of your cell, and then you're gonna have small things that might happen to your house that your house needs to deal with. So you can keep working the way that it should, right. So let's imagine that you have a little bit of water coming in, right? And that water can damage furniture, it can damage your kitchen. So how do you do? So first thing that you could do is probably if it's coming from outside, you have to shut that door close to prevent more water to come in. But then water can also damage a lot of components inside. So what you have to do as well, you're gonna have to fix those. Otherwise, things can go way worse, right? So the whole idea of responding to stress is once you are in that particular situation, or your house, for example, is under a flood, what do you do, so you protect yourself, you repair what has been damaged, and you get rid of the stuff that you can not repair anymore, right and ourselves, we are doing the same thing ourselves are preparing and protecting themselves against more oxidizers that might come it also has a ton of repair systems for your DNA, for example. So your DNA, if it's get damaged, and it hasn't mutation, your DNA is your recipe for life. So you have to repair those damages before the cells can keep dividing.

Christina Shin  03:14

That was an amazing analogy. So now that we've kind of established what you study, why do you study that?

Dr. Gustavo Silva  03:20

So I was introduced to oxidative stress when I was an undergrad, and I didn't know much about it. But I think it was fascinating to just think about all those dimensions that our cells are constantly exposed to it. We know a lot of diseases, for example, they can be caused by oxidative stress, for example, neurological diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. So it's very common, very prevalent, very important. But I never thought too much about what the cells need to do to combat all that stress that is happening all the time. So it is always a fight between the cells, antioxidant capacity, and oxidizers are being produced. So whoever wins that fight can have very important consequences to that cell into that whole organism. So I never knew much about it. But when I was exposed to that, as an undergrad, I thought it was fascinating. And then we started investigating many different things, many different aspects at the molecular detail. And I learned about the potential that this field could have. But not only that, I think as a scientist, I was always drawn by this idea of answering questions. And this curiosity that we all have, right as a kid, we all always playing with things and asking questions and trying to find answers for things that we don't understand. And I think a career in science is actually like that. If you're in the biological sciences, there are so many questions that we don't understand. And it's a very rich field for us to explore. So the whole idea of having a profession that allows me to always tend to my curiosity is fascinating to me.

Christina Shin  04:51

That's great. I hope the same will happen to other undergraduates that they find their lab and fall in love with it and continue to have that curiosity for the Biological Sciences and the research it produces.

Dr. Gustavo Silva  05:02

I definitely hope that too. I think once you are immersed in a research experience, you're going to find a place and a field that is conducive to the type of research that you want to do. And if you're excited about it, I think you're going to find so many great things about doing this type of work.

Christina Shin  05:18

So now we established what you study, why you study that, I was hoping you could answer how do you study that?

Dr. Gustavo Silva  05:26

Okay, so I mentioned that we have this great response that the cells have to control a lot of different processes in the response to stress. So something that we are really interested in the lab is to study a very tiny protein that is called ubiquitin. So now I'm going to get into a little bit of detail of what exactly we study, so I can tell you how we study that. So we study this very little protein called ubiquitin. And what is really interesting about ubiquitin is that it can be attached to other proteins, it serves as a signal pretty much. Imagine as a flag that you can add to other proteins. And that can change the fate or the function of that protein. So once that protein is flagged, it'll be degraded by a complex called proteasome and removed from the cell. But now we know that if we continue to construct a lot of different functions, and what we're really seeing in the lab, is that many different proteins are not only controlling the destruction of other proteins, but also the synthesis, the production of proteins can be regulated by ubiquitin. So we're really interested in seeing this key function of this tiny protein called ubiquitin in controlling multiple aspects of stress response. So in order to do this, right now, answering your question, we have those different cell types in the lab, let's say a cell or human cells, we induce with different chemicals, induce oxidative stress to them. And then we can take proteins out or DNA out, or mRNA out. So you can take a lot of different molecules out of those cells, and then do this studies at the protein level or the transcriptional level, for example. So we have a bunch of biochemical cellular assays that we can use to really understand what the cell is doing. We were talking about this analogy of a house, some proteins are going to be important for their first process, which is taking care and making sure that everything is protected. But some other proteins might be important for a late phase of stress response when you're actually repairing different components of that cell. So we also want to make sure that this time element is really put into account in our research so we can understand the entire process of the stress response and the key elements that are regulating this.

Christina Shin  07:34

That's incredible. I would imagine that every day in lab kind of brings a different day.

Dr. Gustavo Silva  07:40

Yeah, you're completely correct about it. And I think this is one of the reasons that my research is like this, because it reflects my way of thinking science and working. And one of the great things about doing research is that you can also collaborate with a lot of colleagues that will have new tools and new techniques. The limit of our research is our creativity we can do as much as our creativity allows, and we can have a lot of amazing resources and colleagues to to answer that question.

Christina Shin  08:11

So you've given great answers of what you do inside the lab. What's one thing you love doing outside of work?

Dr. Gustavo Silva  08:17

I would say that before COVID soccer was something that I always enjoyed doing. So I played soccer my whole life. It's something that I miss a lot, because I haven't been playing over a year. But a new habit that I gained during COVID is gardening. So I started gardening last year, I started a little bit late. So the winter came before some of my crops were ready. But I'm starting again right now. But I have some amazing carrots, for example. And this year, I'm starting and testing a lot of different crops and see how they do. So it's a very cool way to be connected to the earth and see the development and started asking question right about planned development, that I think it's fascinating just to see how the little seed, right, it has all the information it needs to become a whole plant. So it's amazing to watch them develop, what's the differences between each one of them, so it's sometimes it's hard to take out the the scientist in me. I'm always asking questions and seeing how they develop it. And eventually, you're also going to have a lot of produce, which is super cool, too.

Christina Shin  09:20

That is such a cool hobby Dr. Silva. Well, that's all the time we have for today. Thank you so much, Dr. Silva. And thank you to the listener for joining us atBioGist. Also thank you to the Duke University biology department for supporting this podcast and Poddington Bear for the music. See you next time.