Jonathan Sweedler uses grapefruit-sized sea slugs—that can weigh more than four pounds—to study how chemicals, like serotonin and dopamine, enable brain cell interactions.
These “big, disgusting, gooey-looking” mollusks are surprisingly complex. They are capable of learning and long-term memory, but their neural networks are simple enough that the team is able to draw conclusions about how chemicals in the brain work.
“Sometimes people like to make statements that neuropeptides, which modulate behavior, are responsible for four of the seven deadly sins,” said Sweedler, the James R. Eiszner Family Endowed Chair in Chemistry. “These molecules change the way we think, the way we feel, and whether we are hungry or not. They are really important in a lot of ways, and surprisingly, a lot of them aren’t known.”
Sweedler explores the brain’s frontier, seeking out new neurochemicals that signal between and amongst brain cells to encode memories or change behavior. To better understand this process, his lab has developed new tools to analyze the neurochemical differences in nearby cells.
“We have used these tools and come up with a list of hundreds of new peptides,” Sweedler said. “To discover new molecules that weren’t known before and learn what they do is very satisfying.”
His group’s tools are widely used by scientists and pharmaceutical companies today. Scientists are closer now to having what they need to discover the link between neurochemicals and mental illness, like serotonin and depression as well as dopamine and attention deficient disorder.
When Sweedler joined the University of Illinois in 1991, he did not think he would be studying neurochemicals amidst cornfields for nearly 25 years.
Over this period of time, he has picked up an impressive string of titles, duties, and affiliations. In addition to holding a chair in chemistry, he is the Director of the School of Chemical Sciences. He is also affiliated with the Biotechnology Center, Neuroscience Program, and Bioengineering Program and is a member of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB) and the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. In addition, he is editor of Analytical Chemistry.
Sweedler isn’t a stranger to long work days. But at the end of the day, he says he leaves his work at the office. He doesn’t consider the one or two hours he spends each night reading journal submissions or the additional tasks required to run a 15-30 member lab group to be “work.”
“I may have a nine-to-five job, but then I have my hobby, which is research,” Sweedler said. “I work on my hobby at night and on the weekends: reading about research, writing papers, or meeting with students.”
More than 100 students have been a part of Sweedler’s lab, each leaving their mark “figuratively and literally” he said, referring to their scientific accomplishments and the various snail memorabilia they have donated to his ever growing office collection.
“They have been very successful in all sorts of areas,” he said. “My former students continuously reinvent themselves and that has been one of the most exciting aspects of my career.”
Sweedler received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of California at Davis in 1983. He went on to earn a doctorate from the University of Arizona in chemistry in 1989 followed by a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship at Stanford University in neuroscience and chemistry.
This profile originally appeared on the February 2015 Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology newsletter.