Photo of professor Dr. Linda Chelico
Dr. Linda Chelico is a professor of in the Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology and Immunology at the USask College of Medicine. (Photo by Kristen McEwen)

Just Give Mutants A Chance: Dr. Linda Chelico

How cell mutations and mutagenesis took one microbiologist from Melfort to Malibu and back.

Listen to all episodes of Researchers Under the Scope podcast.

As a high school student growing up in Melfort, Sask. Dr. Linda Chelico (PhD) knew she wanted to work in health sciences.  

She enjoyed biology class, and took an interest in watching nature heal itself. She wanted to find environmentally friendly solutions to health problems. 

Then, she read a National Geographic magazine about landfills filling up. 

She began thinking about the environmental footprint of garbage, and what organisms might help break down piles of refuse. The idea turned into her Grade 11 science project, where she showed ways micro-organisms could degrade some of the waste people produce in landfills.  

“That's when I decided I wanted to be a microbiologist,” said Chelico. 

Watching evolving life forms had her hooked.  

She moved a two-hour drive west to Saskatoon, and enrolled as a microbiology student at the University of Saskatchewan. Within a year, she switched to an honours degree through the College of Agriculture’s Applied Microbiology program. 

She earned her PhD in Saskatoon studying insecticidal fungal strains, with varied results. 

“You could kill the insects without putting chemicals in the environment,” said Chelico. 

But as she tested the fungus on arid prairie fields, the effects of its prolonged exposure to sunlight and irradiation intrigued her. 

“Some of these fungal spores would survive a lot of UV damage,” she said. “It would dry out, it would acquire mutations. And I was trying to formulate it with sunscreens and then in the lab irradiate it with UV radiation, like if you're going to a tanning bed.” 

Although mutations were generally seen as negative for cell health in her coursework, Chelico realized they deserved a closer look. 

“There's extreme stress on the organisms. They've required a lot of DNA damage from this UV irradiation,” she said. “So how do they survive?” 

In this episode, we hear how Chelico’s interest in damaged, mutant cells morphed into a scientific Hollywood story, after she met Myron F. Goodman, at the University of Southern California’s Los Angeles laboratories.  

“Everything was unified by the benefit of mutations,” she said. Chelico spent five years of post-doctoral work studying microcellular activity and biological responses to stress in Goodman’s lab. 

By 2009, she had Hollywood Boulevard in the rear-view mirror, returning to Saskatoon to accept a faculty position at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Medicine. 

Working as a virologist, microbiologist and biochemist, Chelico and her teams have landed more than $1.6 million dollars in three years, with continuing grants from the Canadian Institutes of Health Information. 

Her laboratory is focused on what key enzyme mutations in viruses mean, particularly for patients with HIV-AIDS, other viruses, and cancer. 

“In humans, when these mutations happen, usually we see it come out as a cancer,” said Chelico. “It doesn't exist in all of our cells. It exists in the type of [immune] cells that react to environmental stress.”

Share this story