Carnegie Mellon University

Brooke M. McCartney

Associate Professor

600D Mellon Institute
Department of Biological Sciences
Carnegie Mellon University
4400 Fifth Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15213

Phone: 412-268-5195 (Office)
412-268-9820 (Lab)
Fax: 412-268-7129


Lab Website

Brooke McCartney


Ph.D., Duke University
Postdoctoral Appointment, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


The APC Tumor Suppressor and the Cytoskeleton

Cancer is the “Emperor of All Maladies”1. This collection of related, but molecularly distinct diseases, will affect almost 40% of people in their lifetimes2. Through decades of research scientists have made tremendous strides in preventing, treating and curing specific types of cancer. However, the full scope of cellular dysfunction that contributes to cancer is still not known.  To answer this question, we must first develop a comprehensive understanding of how normal cells work.

Cells migrate, divide, and change shape in extraordinary ways to produce tissues, organs, and organisms. Mutations in the genes and changes to the proteins underlying these basic cell functions can drive the initiation and progression of diseases like cancer. Behind the scenes of all of these remarkable cellular acrobatics is filamentous actin, a deceptively simple polymer that can be assembled, bundled, branched, cross linked, severed, and disassembled by a cadre of actin associated proteins to produce the amazing variety of actin based structures animal cells need. How cells are able to construct distinct actin filament arrays of different sizes, architectures, and dynamics from a common pool of building blocks is largely a mystery.

Our lab uses the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, as an experimental model to discover the molecules and mechanisms that govern the assembly and function of specific actin structures in cells during development. Some of the many different populations of actin that we study in the lab play critical roles in the process of oogenesis.  Specifically, we are using the striking arrays of colossal actin cables (~30 µm long, ~25 filaments thick) that develop in nurse cells late in Drosophila oogenesis as a model to study how two families of proteins, APCs and formins, control the formation of new actin structures. Adenomatous polyposis coli (APC) is a human tumor suppressor responsible for initiating roughly 80% of all colorectal cancers with roles in Wnt signaling and cytoskeletal function, and formins are a diverse family of actin assembly factors.

Together, these proteins collaborate in unique ways to regulate the development of the actin cable arrays in oogenesis. We are coupling our expertise in Drosophila genetics and cytoskeletal cell biology with powerful in vitro reconstitution assays and single molecule Total Internal Reflection Fluorescence (TIRF) microscopy provided by the lab of our collaborator Bruce Goode at Brandeis University. Together, we are gaining significant insights into the detailed molecular mechanisms, cellular functions, and development consequences of APC-formin partnerships that are contributing to our understanding of APC’s role in human tumor suppression. 

Nurse CellFigure 1: This is one nurse cell in the late stage Drosophila ovary.  The actin cables stained with phalloidin (gray) are elongating toward the nucleus (cyan) where they make contact and push the nucleus toward the opposite end of the cell.  This enables the nurse cells to successfully dump all of their cytoplasmic contents into the oocyte without the nucleus getting in the way. This is a critical step in the successful production of a mature egg ready for fertilization. APC proteins and formins are required for the normal assembly of this actin cable array. 

1 ”The Emperor of all Maladies: a biography of cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee, M.D. (2010) and a documentary by Ken Burns (2015) based on the book
Statistics from the National Cancer Institute based on 2010-2012 data

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"Mind-Altering Bugs"

We are all too familiar with humanity’s “modern plagues”3, diseases and disorders that appear to be on the rise particularly in industrialized countries. These may include obesity, diabetes, allergies, autism, and mental illness.  These take a tremendous toll on individuals, families, society at large and the economy.  What has changed in our world and in our biology to drive the high rates of these problems?  We are beginning to learn that some answers lie with our bacteria.

When I say “ecosystem”, most of us will conjure an image of the Great Barrier Reef, the African savannah, or some other amazing macroscopic slice of our environment.  What we rarely appreciate is that every person is an ecosystem unto themselves with a wide variety of diverse environments that vast populations of microbes, the microbiota, call home. Our human cells are outnumbered 10:1 by bacterial cells, which in total may weigh 4-6 pounds- the approximate weight of the human brain.  The overwhelming majority of these bacteria are our symbionts where we benefit them and they benefit us. In the last 5-10 years, science has begun to understand just how much they benefit us and that having the right numbers, of the right kind of bacteria, at the right times in our lives, can have a tremendous impact on our health. However, we are far from understanding how the symbiotic relationship that we have with our bacteria works, and precisely how their presence or absence contributes to optimal health or disease. Those answers will be transformative to human health.

The human microbiota contains thousands of different species of bacteria, the majority of which are difficult or impossible to manipulate in the lab.  This makes understanding the underlying interactions between our cells and our bacteria an intractable problem. The fruit fly, on the other hand, has a very accessible and experimentally friendly microbiota and anatomy, and has proven over decades of research to be a remarkable model for human biology in the areas of immunity, development, and animal behavior, for example.  

We are using Drosophila as our model to dissect the gut-microbiota-brain connection: the ways in which the gut microbiota controls brain function and animal behavior. We have assembled a multi-disciplinary team at Carnegie Mellon including Luisa Hiller (microbiologist, Biological Sciences), Carleton Kingsford (computational biologist, Lane Center for Computational Biology), Jonathan Minden (biochemist, Biological Sciences), and Aaron Mitchell (microbiologist, Biological Sciences) as well as a growing number of collaborators outside of the university, to tackle this problem. With transcriptomics and proteomics, we are learning which genes and proteins in the fly are susceptible to manipulation by the bacterial microbiota, and we are discovering how these changes affect the physiology and behavior of the fly in unexpected ways. 

Alcohol SensitivityFigure 2: We have found that the microbiota alters Drosophila’s sensitivity to and tolerance of alcohol. In this simple assay, flies with a normal microbiota, or an experimentally altered microbiota, are exposed to ethanol to determine the time to sedation.   Like humans, flies develop tolerance to alcohol after repeated exposures and can develop addicitive like behaviors surrounding the acquisition of alcohol. We are investigating how the microbiota may be modulating these responses and behaviors in Drosophila. Interestingly, data in the literature suggest that at least a subset of people with alcohol abuse disorders also have dysbiosis, or alterations to the normal composition of their microbiota, suggesting that alteration of the microbiota could be a risk factor in alcohol abuse. Understanding the biological connections between the microbiota and alcohol use and abuse has the potential to help identify people at risk for developing alcohol use disorders, and mitigate the risk of alcoholism.  

3 ”Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics is Fueling our Modern Plagues” by Martin J. Blaser, M.D. (2014)

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Blundon MA, Schlesinger DR, Parthasarathy A, Smith SL, Kolev HM, Vinson DA, Kunttas-Tatli E, McCartney BM, Minden JS. Proteomic analysis reveals APC-dependent post-translational modifications and identifies a novel regulator of β-catenin. Development. 2016 Jul 15;143(14):2629-40.

Fouz MF, Mukumoto K, Averick S, Molinar O, McCartney BM, Matyjaszewski K, Armitage BA, Das SR. right Fluorescent Nanotags from Bottlebrush Polymers with DNA-Tipped Bristles. ACS Cent Sci. 2015 Nov 25;1(8):431-8.

Kunttas-Tatli E, Von Kleeck RA, Greaves BD, Vinson D, Roberts DM, McCartney BM. The two SAMP repeats and their phosphorylation state in Drosophila Adenomatous polyposis coli-2 play mechanistically distinct roles in negatively regulating Wnt signaling. Mol Biol Cell. 2015 Dec 1;26(24):4503-18.

Kunttas-Tatli E, Roberts DM, McCartney BM. Self-association of the APC tumor suppressor is required for the assembly, stability, and activity of the Wnt signaling destruction complex. Mol Biol Cell. 2014 Sep 10.

Komori H, Xiao Q, McCartney BM, Lee CY. Brain tumor specifies intermediate progenitor cell identity by attenuating β-catenin/Armadillo activity. Development. 2014 Jan;141(1):51-62

Jaiswal R, Stepanik V, Rankova A, Molinar O, Goode BL, McCartney BM. Drosophila homologues of adenomatous polyposis coli (APC) and the formin diaphanous collaborate by a conserved mechanism to stimulate actin filament assembly. J Biol Chem. 2013 May 10;288(19):13897-905.

Kunttas-Tatli E, Zhou MN, Zimmerman S, Molinar O, Zhouzheng F, Carter K, Kapur M, Cheatle A†, Decal R, McCartney BM*. Destruction complex function in the Wnt signaling pathway of Drosophila requires multiple interactions between Adenomatous polyposis coli 2 and Armadillo. Genetics. 2012 Mar;190(3):1059-75. Epub 2011 Dec 14.

Stadler AL, Delos Santos JO, Stensrud ES, Dembska A, Silva GL, Liu S, Shank NI, Kunttas-Tatli E, Sobers CJ, Gramlich PM, Carell T, Peteanu LA, McCartney BM, Armitage BA. Fluorescent DNA Nanotags Featuring Covalently Attached Intercalating Dyes: Synthesis, Antibody Conjugation and Intracellular Imaging. Bioconjugate Chemistry 22(8):1491-1502, 2011 Aug 17.

Zhou M-N, Kunttas-Tatli E, Zimmerman S, Zhouzheng F, McCartney BM. Cortical localization of APC2 plays a role in actin organization but not in Wnt signaling in Drosophila. Journal of Cell Science, 124(Pt 9):1589-600, 2011 May 1.

Zimmerman SG, Thorpe LM, Medrano VR, Mallozzi CA, McCartney BM. Apical constriction and invagination downstream of the canonical Wnt signaling pathway requires Rho1 and Myosin II. Developmental Biology 340:54-66, 2010.

Webb RL, Rozov O, Watkins S, McCartney BM. Using Total Internal Reflection Fluorescence (TIRF) microscopy to visualize cortical actin and microtubules in the Drosophila syncytial embryo. Developmental Dynamics; 238:2622-2632, 2009.

Webb RL, Zhou MN, McCartney BM. A novel role for an APC2-Diaphanous complex in regulating actin organization in Drosophila. Development; 136(8):1283-93, 2009 Apr. Epub 2009 Mar 11.

McCartney BM, Näthke IS. Cell regulation by the Apc protein Apc as master regulator of epithelia. Curr Opin Cell Biol 2008 Apr; 20(2):186-93, Epub 2008 Mar 24.

McCartney BM, Price MH, Webb RL, Hayden MA, Holot LM, Zhou M, Bejsovec A, Peifer M. Testing hypotheses for the functions of APC family proteins using null and truncation alleles in Drosophila. Development; 133(12):2407-18, 2006 Jun.

Akong K, McCartney BM and Peifer M. Drosophila APC2 and APC1 have overlapping roles in the larval brain despite their distinct intracellular localizations. Developmental Biology, 250(1):71-90, 2002.

Akong K, Grevengoed E, Price M, McCartney BM, Hayden M, DeNofrio J and Peifer M. Drosophila APC2 and APC1 play overlapping roles in Wingless signaling in the embryo and imaginal discs. Developmental Biology, 250(1):91-100, 2002.

McCartney B, McEwen, Grevengoed E, Maddox P, Bejsovec A and Peifer M. Drosophila APC2 and Armadillo participate in tethering mitotic spindles to cortical actin. Nature Cell Biology, 3(10):933-938, 2001.

McCartney BM and Peifer M. Teaching tumour suppressors new tricks. Nature Cell Biology, 2(4): E58-E60, 2000.

McCartney BM, Dierick HA, Kirkpatrick C, Moline M, Baas A, Peifer M and Bejsovec A. Drosophila APC2 is a cytoskeletally-associated protein that regulates Wingless signaling in the embryonic epidermis. Journal of Cell Biology, 146(6):1303-1318, 1999.

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