Joe Howard, PhD

Eugene Higgins Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry and Professor of Physics; co-Director, Quantitative Biology Institute

Research Departments & Organizations

Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry

Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program

Swartz Program in Theoretical Neurobiology

Office of Cooperative Research

Research Interests

Biophysics; Cilia; Microtubules; Mitosis; Molecular Motor Proteins; Nanotechnology; Neurobiology; Physics

Research Summary

Mechanics of Motor Proteins and the Cytoskeleton The Howard lab is fascinated by the question of how small molecules like proteins, lipids and nucleotides self-assemble into cells and tissues that are thousands to millions of times larger than molecular dimensions. How do the molecules know where they are, and whether the structures that they have made are the right size and shape? By combining highly sensitive techniques to visualize and manipulate individual biological molecules, with theory and modeling, the Howard lab is trying to understand the interaction rules that allow molecules to work together to form highly organized yet dynamic cellular structures.

The Howard lab is approaching these questions in the context of the microtubule cytoskeleton. They are interested in the molecular properties of motor proteins, especially how they operate as molecular machines to drive motion and regulate the growth and shrinkage of microtubules. In addition to biochemical and single-molecule approaches, they also study a number of cellular systems include mitosis, cilia and flagella, and the neuronal cytoskeleton. Specialized Terms: Motor proteins, Cytoskeleton; Microtubule dynamics; Cell motility; Mitosis; the Axoneme; Neuronal Morphology, Optical tweezers, Single-molecule biophysics

Extensive Research Description

Motor and Cytoskeletal Systems: From molecules to cells

How do cells measure length and time? How do they count? How do they sense their shape? These are some of the most important outstanding questions in cell and developmental biology. For example, how do proliferating cells know how big they are and when to stop growing and to start dividing? How do organs, such as brain and liver, ensure that they manufacture enough cells, but not too many? How do cells control the dimensions of their organelles, such as endosomes, cilia and mitotic spindles? How do cells make certain that they have exactly two copies of each chromosome, that they have just one cilium, but that dividing cells have exactly two mitotic-spindle poles?

These are difficult questions because they address “systems-level” processes whose length-scales and time-scales differ strikingly from those of the constituent molecules—the proteins, lipids and nucleic acids—that form the molecular building blocks of cells. The goal of our research is to find molecule-level answers to these systems-level questions. Just as a radio or a computer must be understood in terms of their constituent analog or digital circuits, cell and tissue morphology must be understood in terms of underlying molecular circuits. These circuits comprise networks of interacting molecules. What kinds of computations can they perform? How do they assemble? What feedback-control mechanisms operate to control the size, shape and organization of molecular assemblies? Reaction-diffusion equations have dominated our thinking about biological patterning since the seminar work of Turing in the 1950s; however, we argue that active, mechanical processes mediated by motor proteins and the cytoskeleton, may play an even more important role in morphogenesis than purely chemical mechanisms (Howard et al. 2011).

Research Approach: Quantitative experiments to test theoretical predictions

Our research focuses on the biochemistry and biophysics of the cytoskeleton, with particular emphasis on the mechanics of microtubules and microtubule-based motor proteins. On the one hand, the lab is interested in how these proteins work: i.e. how do kinesins, dyneins and microtubules act as molecular machines to convert chemical energy derived from the hydrolysis of ATP or GTP into mechanical work used to power cell motility? And, on the other hand, we are interested in the roles that microtubules and their motors play in shaping and moving cells and tissues. For example, how do the dynamic properties of microtubules drive spindle and chromosome movements in mitosis, and how does dynein drive axonemal motility? What roles do microtubules and their motors play in mechanoreception in sensory cells and in shaping neurons in the brain?

Our approach is to combine measurement and theory (Howard 2014). The challenge is that the complexity of biological systems makes quantitative measurements and their interpretation exceedingly difficult. The key to circumventing these difficulties is the use of single-molecule techniques, in whose development our lab played an important role (e.g. Howard et al. 1989). Using single-molecule optical techniques, the interactions between the individual motor and cytoskeletal molecules can be characterized in vitro and in vivo. These interactions constitute a form of mechanical signaling (Howard et al. 2011). We then use theory, primarily from statistical physics and non-linear dynamics, to predict how the individual interactions lead to the collective behavior of ensembles of molecules. We then test these predictions with quantitative in vivo experiments on intact cells.

Microtubule dynamics

Microtubules are biological polymers that alternate between periods of growth and shrinkage. This process, termed dynamic instability by its discovers Mitchison and Kirshner, is crucial for microtubule length regulation, for the exploration of intracellular space, and for cellular force generation. Despite its central role in cell biology, dynamic instability is poorly understood.

We are taking several complementary approaches to understanding dynamics..

(i) We have developed assays to study microtubule dynamics using single-molecule techniques: total-internal reflection fluorescence microscopy (Brouhard et al. 2008, and see right for motors moving along a microtubule), optical tweezers (Bormuth et al. 2009, Jannasch et al. 2013, Trushko et al. 2013) amd interference rlection microscopy (Mahamdeh et al. 2018).

(ii) We have used these assays to figure out how microtubule-associated proteins (MAPs) regulate microtubule dynamics. We have shown how depolymerizing kinesins target microtubule ends and couple ATP hydrolysis to microtubule shortening (Helenius et al. 2006, Varga et a. 2006, 2009, Friel and Howard 2011); we discovered that XMAP215 is a processive polymerase (Brouhard et al. 2008, Widlund et al. 2011); and we found that the end-binding protein EB1 recognizes the nucleotide state of tubulin (Zanic et al. 2009) to increase catastrophe and to synergize with XMAP215 to increase microtubule growth rates (Zanic et al. 2013). Recently, we discovered that a yeast kinesin, Kip2, is a microtubule polymerase and has the fascinating and unexpected property that the longer the microtubule the greater is the acceleration of growth (Hibbel et al. 2015)! This is a form of positive feedback. We are also interested in how the activity of motors and MAPs depends on post-translational modifications of tubulin (Alper et al. 2014, Coombes et al. 2016) These single-molecule studies show that we are are still scratching the surface of as far as the variety of activities kinesins and other microtubule associated proteins have on the regulation of the cytoskeleton.

(iii) Most biochemical and biophysical studies on microtubules use tubulin from mammalian brain because of the protein’s abundance in this tissue. However, brain tubulin is highly heterogeneous due to many different genes as well as post-translational modifications. We are therefore using two simplified systems - budding yeast and the Chlamydomonas cilium - to study tubulin dynamics and its regulation by MAPs in order to dissect their role in controlling microtubule length.

(iii) We are using theory to gain insight into microtubule length control (Varga et al. 2009), the catastrophe switch (Gardner et al. 2011, Bowne-Anderson et al. 2013, Bowne-Anderson et al. 2015) and the collective properties of motor proteins (Leduc et al. 2012)

The motility of cilia and flagella

That the motor protein dynein drives microtubule sliding and bending in cilia and flagella has been known since the classic experiments of Gibbons, Brokaw and Satir in the 1960s and 1970s. However, how the activity of the dyneins is coordinated to give a periodic beat remains an open. We are bringing a new constellation of techniques to the problem. In earlier work, we hypothesized that the dyneins are coordinated through a force-sensing mechanism: sliding forces provide positive feedback that switches the activity of the motors across the axis of the axoneme (the motile structure within cilia and flagella) and couples the motors along the length of the axoneme (Riedel-Kruse et al. 2007, Howard 2009). Using high-speed imaging and high-precision image analysis, we showed that our hypothesis can account very satisfactorily for the beat of mammalian sperm.

We are now using the single-celled alga Chlamydomonas Reinhardtii as a model system to study (i) the beating of isolated, reactivated axonemes, the motile structure within cilia and flagella (Geyer et al. 2016, Geyer et al. 2017, Sartori et al. 2016a, Sartori et al. 2016b), (ii) the activity of axonemal subassemblies (Mukundan et al. 2014) and individual dynein molecules purified from these axonemes (Alper et al. 2013, 2014), and (iii) the role of hydrodynamics in shaping the beat pattern (Friedrich et al. 2010) and swimming path (Geyer et al. 2013). In this way we hope to obtain a molecular understanding of one of the most elegant and enigmatic examples of cell locomotion. Oscillators are a paradigms of emergence because the system behavior obscures the contributions of the individual players. We hope to the obtain the first truly molecular and biochemical understanding of a cellular oscillator

Branching morphologenis of neurons

The architecture of the brain and its constituent neurons is staggeringly complex. A fundamental insight into the working of the brain was made by the Spanish anatomist Ramon y Cajal who discovered the “dynamic polarization of neurons” (Ramon y Cajal, Nobel Lecture 1906). According to this principle, neurons are polarized cells, with dendrites and axons, usually on opposite sides of the cell body, and he deduced that the flow of information is also polarized, in a way that respects cell polarity: “nervous movement [i.e. electrical activity] in these prolongations [i.e. the dendrites] is towards the cell or axon, while it is away from the cell in the axons”. By studying the morphology of individual neurons and identifying the dendrites and axons, he was able to map the flow of information through the nervous system. Thus, an insight from cell biology, i.e. cell polarity, provided the key to understanding the functional anatomy of the brain. My intuition is that the cell biological principles underlying branching morphology will likewise provide key information about signaling and information processing by neurons.

Our goal is to understand the principles underlying the branching of neurons, especially dendrites. We and others have shown that the microtubule cytoskeleton play a fundamental role, not just in “feeding” neurons, but also in building them in the first place. Using highly branched mechanoreceptors in flies as a model system, we are trying to understand the tradeoffs between intracellular transport from the cell body into the dendrites, on the one hand, and the flow of information from the dendrites back to the cell body, on the other.

Other projects

We are working on several other projects in which the dynamic and structural properties of microtubules underly important cellular processes such as mitosis (Coral-Garzon et al. 2016, 2017, Reber et al. 2013, Redemann et al. 2010, Pecreaux et al. 2006, Grill et al. 2003) and mechanotransduction (Liang & Howard 2017, Liang & Howard 2017, Liang et al. 2014, Liang et al. 2013, Bechstedt et al. 2010, Howard and Bechstedt et al. 2004).


  • Alan J. Hunt Memorial Lecture Ann Arbor, United States (2015 - 2015)

  • Woods Hole Physiology Course Falmouth, United States (2015 - 2015)

  • Bragg Lecture Cambridge, United Kingdom (2014 - 2014)

  • Arthur K. Parpart Endowed Lecture Falmouth, United States (2014 - 2014)

  • Poincaré Seminar Paris, France (2009 - 2009)

  • George A. Feigen Memorial Lecture Stanford, United States (2006 - 2006)

Selected Publications

See list of PubMed publications

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Contact Info

Joe Howard, PhD
Office Location
Bass Center
266 Whitney Avenue, Ste Room 334

New Haven, CT 06511
Mailing Address
Molecular Biophysics and BiochemistryP.O. Box 208114
266 Whitney Ave

New Haven, CT 06520-8114

Curriculum Vitae

Howard Lab