The Ayer Lab studies the transcriptional control of cellular proliferation and how these controls are subverted in human malignancy. We are currently focused on understanding how cells communicate information about their metabolic state to the nucleus to drive adaptive changes in gene expression. Furthermore, we are interested in how these metabolic signals coordinate with the signals that control cell growth, division, and death. We use a wide array of approaches from biochemistry and cell biology to genomics to examine these questions. Our efforts are focused on communication between mitochondria and the nucleus and how these pathways match the availability of glucose with its use in biosynthetic pathways to support anabolic cancer cell growth.

Myc, MondoA, and Metabolism

Myc is a basic region helix-loop-helix leucine zipper (bHLHZip) transcription factor, whose expression is dysregulated in many types of cancer. It functions as a transcriptional activator when dimerized to another bHLHZip protein called Max to drive expression of genes involved in pro-growth pathways. These include biosynthetic pathways such as nucleotide biosynthesis and ribosomal biogenesis. These biosynthetic reactions require carbon skeleton precursors derived primarily from glucose. Myc:Max complexes control the uptake of glucose and its flux into biosynthetic pathways by inducing expression of its membrane-bound transporters and key glycolytic genes. Thus, Myc controls the intracellular availability of key nutrients and their utilization.

Myc functions within a large network of related transcriptional regulators. Over the last 25 years, we have advanced the concept of an “extended” Myc network. The transcriptional activity of Myc:Max complexes is under tight regulatory control: balanced by the Mxd(Mad) family of transcriptional repressors and by a parallel Myc-like transcription factor network that has Max-like protein X (Mlx) at its center. Like Max, Mlx is a small and highly conserved bHLHZip protein with a number of heterodimeric partners. Mlx interacts primarily with the Mondo family of transcription activators, which comprises two bHLHZip proteins, MondoA and ChREBP; our lab discovered MondoA. Mlx can also interact with a subset of the Mad(Mxd) family, but not with Max or any of the Myc family. A number of papers indicate that there is functional crosstalk between Myc:Max and MondoA:Mlx complexes. Exploring the molecular underpinnings of Myc and MondoA crosstalk is one focus of our laboratory.

MondoA Is an Energy Sensor

MondoA:Mlx complexes are interesting in that they localize to the cytoplasm and their nuclear and transcriptional activity is tightly regulated. MondoA:Mlx complexes localize to the outer mitochondrial membrane, suggesting that they sense cellular bioenergetics and/or metabolic state. Supporting this contention, MondoA transcriptional activity is stimulated by glucose 6-phosphate, which is the first intermediate in glycolysis. Once nuclear, MondoA regulates the expression of a gene called Thioredoxin Interacting Protein, which is a potent negative regulator of glucose uptake, to reestablish glucose homeostasis. Our experimental efforts are centered on determining how MondoA senses glucose 6-phosphate, understanding the mechanisms that dictate the subcellular localization of MondoA:Mlx complexes and the molecular pathways regulated by MondoA:Mlx complexes in response to changing mitochondrial function and nutrient state.

News & Blog

5 For The Fight Announces New Class of Cancer Research Fellows
Jun 03, 2022

5 For The Fight Announces New Class of Cancer Research Fellows

5 For The Fight, a nonprofit started by Qualtrics and fueled by thousands of private donors, announced today that seven new cancer researchers will get a boost for their work thanks to $1.1 million in grants. Five women and two men, who are part of the multi-year 5 For The Fight Cancer Research Fellows program, were vetted and chosen in part for their pledge to focus on cancer research. ... Read More

Talks with Docs: Don Ayer, Cancer Researcher
Mar 09, 2020

Talks with Docs: Don Ayer, Cancer Researcher

Don Ayer, PhD, is a leader in the study of gene regulation and its role in normal and cancer cell growth. He believes the best scientists are the ones who are most creative and can think outside the box. Join the conversation in this clip with Dr. Ayer about diversity in the cancer research workforce and why representation matters.... Read More

Huntsman Cancer Institute Researchers Share Expertise at National Cancer Meeting
Apr 11, 2017

Huntsman Cancer Institute Researchers Share Expertise at National Cancer Meeting

More than 20 researchers from Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) at the University of Utah made their mark on the American Association of Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting this year. Held in Washington, D.C., the convention drew more than 21,500 cancer researchers from all over the world. Scientists attended sessions on topics from immunotherapy to precision medicine. About 15 researchers from HCI presented posters in the main conference hall, on a wide range of topics. ... Read More

Characterization of the Nutrient Needs of Triple Negative Breast Cancer Leads to the Identification of a Molecular Signature for Cancer Outcomes
Apr 13, 2015

Characterization of the Nutrient Needs of Triple Negative Breast Cancer Leads to the Identification of a Molecular Signature for Cancer Outcomes

Compared to other types of breast cancer, triple negative breast cancers are often more aggressive and have fewer treatment options. In a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), researchers at Huntsman Cancer Institute and the University of Utah have identified a molecular mechanism that triple negative breast cancer cells use to survive and grow.... Read More

Principle Investigator

Donald E Ayer, PhD
Senior Director of Cancer Training and Career Enhancement, Principal Investigator

Cancer Center Bio