Dr. Jim Uniacke

Associate Professor
Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology
Phone number: 
54739 / 56653
SSC 2244
SSC 2201A-B

Twitter: @Uniackelab

Website: uniackelab.com

The environments in which cells grow often change rapidly. Consequently, cells have evolved mechanisms for regulating their biochemistry in response to signals that indicate environmental change. For example, many fundamental biological processes such as transcription and translation are repressed during exposure to environmental stress to conserve energy. My interest in cellular adaptation to environmental cues and stresses began during my undergraduate studies at Concordia University, which led to a Ph.D. under the supervision of Dr. William Zerges. There, we used the unicellular alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii as a model system to study the spatial organization of mRNAs and proteins during conditions of cellular stress. During this time, we identified novel mechanisms of organelle biogenesis, mRNA localization, and regulation of mRNA translation. These findings inspired me to join the laboratory of Dr. Stephen Lee at the University of Ottawa as a Terry Fox Postdoctoral Fellow to investigate the control of mRNA translation in human disease with a focus on hypoxia and cancer. The discovery that the cap-dependent protein synthesis machinery adapts to hypoxia, and that this mechanism is exploited by cancer cells exposed to low oxygen was covered by national media including the National Post and CBC. My laboratory will continue to investigate how the protein synthesis machinery adapts to environmental stresses such as hypoxia, and how cancer cells exploit the hypoxic protein synthesis machinery for tumorigenesis.

  • B.Sc. Concordia University
  • Ph.D. Concordia University
  • PDF. University of Ottawa

Protein synthesis involves the translation of ribonucleic acid information into proteins, the building blocks of life. The initial step of protein synthesis consists of the eukaryotic translation initiation factor 4E (eIF4E) binding to the 5’ cap of mRNAs. However, many cellular stresses repress cap-dependent translation to conserve energy by sequestering eIF4E. This raises a fundamental question in biology as to how proteins are synthesized during periods of cellular stress and eIF4E inhibition. Research in our laboratory will build upon the discovery that cells switch to an alternative cap-binding protein, eIF4E2, to synthesize the bulk of their proteins during periods of oxygen scarcity (hypoxia). One of our main focuses will be on cancer because as human tumors display considerable diversity in their genetic makeup, they share common physiological attributes such as a hypoxic microenvironment that contribute to the malignant phenotype. As oxygen only diffuses through a few layers of cells, the vast majority of cancer cells that populate a tumor are thought to be exposed to hypoxic conditions. Therefore, understanding how eIF4E2-dependent translation, a mechanism scarcely used by normal oxygenated cells, functions and contributes to the expression of the tumor cell phenotype will provide unique opportunities for cancer therapy.

Current areas of research include:

  • Investigating how various cancers exploit eIF4E2-directed translation for tumorigenesis.
  • Characterizing the eIF4E2 complex and understanding the mechanism of hypoxic cap-dependent translation initiation.
  • Examining how the cap-dependent protein synthesis machinery adapts to diverse environmental cues.

We currently have positions open for those who are interested in studying the fundamental biological process of protein synthesis, how it adapts to stress, and how it is exploited by cancer. Our lab will provide you with the opportunity to present your work at international meetings and to gain expertise in many traditional and modern techniques in molecular biology and biochemistry including in vitro and in vivo tumor models. Interested candidates are invited to contact us.


  1. Kirsh, SM, Pascetta SA, Uniacke J. Spheroids as a 3D Model of the Hypoxic Tumor Microenvironment. Methods Mol Biol. 2023;2614:273-285.
  2. Melanson G, Du Bois AC, Webster C, Uniacke J. ISGylation directly modifies hypoxia-inducible factor-2α and enhances its polysome association. FEBS Lett. 2022 Nov;596(21):2834-2850.
  3. Medeiros, PJ, Pascetta SA, Kirsh SM, Al-Khazraji BK, Uniacke J. Expression of hypoxia inducible factor-dependent neuropeptide Y receptors Y1 and Y5 sensitizes hypoxic cells to NPY stimulation. J Biol Chem. 2022 Mar;298(3):101645
  4. Ho JJD, Schatz JH, Uniacke J, Lee S, Jekyll and Hyde: Activating the Hypoxic Translational MAchinery. Trends Biochem Sci. 2021 Mar;46(3):171-174.
  5. Jewer M, Lee L, Leibovitch M, Zhang G, Liu J, Findlay SD, Vincent KM, Tandoc K, Dieters-Castator D, Quail DF, Dutta I, Coatham M, Xu Z, Puri A, Guan BJ, Hatzoglou M, Brumwell A, Uniacke J, Patsis C, Koromilas A, Schueler J, Siegers GM, Topisirovic I, Postovit LM. Translational control of breast cancer plasticity. (2020). Nat Commun. May 19;11(1):2498.
  6. Brumwell A, Fell L, Obress L, Uniacke J. (2020). Hypoxia influences polysome distribution of human ribosomal protein S12 and alternative splicing of ribosomal protein mRNAs. RNA. Mar;26(3):361-371.
  7. Evagelou SL, Bebenek O, Specker EJ, Uniacke J. (2020). DEAD Box Protein Family Member DDX28 Is a Negative Regulator of Hypoxia-Inducible Factor 2α- and Eukaryotic Initiation Factor 4E2-Directed Hypoxic Translation. Mol Cell Biol. Feb 27;40(6)
  8. Timpano S, Guild BD, Specker EJ, Melanson G, Medeiros PJ, Sproul SLJ, Uniacke J. (2019). Physioxic human cell culture improves viability, metabolism, and mitochondrial morphology while reducing DNA damage. FASEB J. Apr;33(4):5716-5728.
  9. Kelly, N.J., Varga, J.F.A., Specker, E.J., Romeo, C.M., Coomber, B.L., Uniacke, J. (2018). Hypoxia activates cadherin-22 synthesis via eIF4E2 to drive cancer cell migration, invasion, and adhesion. Oncogene. 37(5):651-662. 
  10. *Melanson, G., *Timpano, S., Uniacke, J. The eIF4E2-directed hypoxic cap-dependent translation machinery reveals novel therapeutic potential for cancer treatment. (2017)  Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2017:6098107. doi:10.1155/2017/6098107
  11. Brasher, M.I., Martynowicz, D.M., Grafinger, O.R., Hucik, A., Shanks-Skinner, E., Uniacke, J., Coppolino, M.G. (2017). Interaction of Munc18c and Syntaxin4 facilitates invadopodium formation and extracellular matrix invasion of tumour cells. J Biol Chem. 292(39):16199-16210
  12. *Timpano, S., *Melanson, G., Evagelou, S. L., Guild, B. D., Specker, E. J., and Uniacke, J. (2016). Analysis of cap-binding proteins in human cells exposed to physiological oxygen conditions. J. Vis. Exp. (118), e55112, doi:10.3791/55112 (2016). (*joint first author)
  13. Timpano, S. and Uniacke, J. (2016). Human cells cultured under physiological oxygen utilize two cap-binding proteins to recruit distinct mRNAs for translation. J. Biol. Chem. 291(20): 10772-82
  14. Ho, J.J.D., Wang, M., Audas, T.E., Kwon, D., Carlsson, S.K., Timpano, S., Evagelou, S.L., Brothers, S., Gonzalgo, M.L., Krieger, J.R., Chen, S., *Uniacke, J., *Lee, S. (2016). Systemic reprograming of translation efficiencies on oxygen stimulus. Cell Reports. 14(6):1293-300. (*joint senior author)
  15. Zhan, Y., Dhaliwal, J., Adjibade, P., Uniacke, J., Mazroui, R., and Zerges, W. (2015). Localized control of oxidized RNA. J Cell Science. 128(22): 4210-9
  16. Uniacke, J. (2014). Cellular adaptation to low oxygen availability by a switch in the protein synthesis machinery. Can. Y. Sci. J.2014 (3): 53-58.
  17. Lachance, G., Uniacke, J., Audas, TE., Holterman, CE., Franovic, A., Payette, J., and Lee, S. (2014). DNMT3a Epigenetic Program Regulates the HIF-2a Oxygen-Sensing Pathway and the Cellular Response to Hypoxia. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 111(21): 7783-7788.
  18. Uniacke, J., Perera, JK., Lachance, G., Francisco, CB., and Lee, S. (2014). Cancer cells exploit eIF4E2-directed synthesis of hypoxia response proteins to drive tumor progression. Cancer Res. 74:1379-89.
  19. Jacob, MD., Audas, TE., Uniacke, J., Trinkle-Mulcahy, L., and Lee, S. (2013). Environmental cues induce a long noncoding RNA-dependent remodeling of the nucleolus. Mol Biol Cell. 24: 2943-53.
  20. Uniacke, J., Holterman, CE., Lachance, G., Franovic, A., Jacob, MD., Fabian, MR., Holcik, M., Pause, A., and Lee, S. (2012). An oxygen-regulated switch in the protein synthesis machinery. Nature. 486: 126-9.
  21. Uniacke, J., Colon-Ramos, D., and Zerges, W. (2011). FISH and immunofluorescence staining in Chlamydomonas. Methods Mol Biol. 714: 15-29.
  22. Uniacke, J. and Zerges, W. (2009). Chloroplast protein targeting involves; localized translation in Chlamydomonas. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 106: 1439-44.
  23. Uniacke, J. and Zerges, W. (2008). Stress induces the assembly of RNA granules in the chloroplast of Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. J Cell Biol. 182: 641-6.
  24. Uniacke, J. and Zerges, W. (2007). Photosystem II assembly and repair are differentially localized in Chlamydomonas. Plant Cell. 19: 3640-54.

Complete List of Publications

Graduate Students

  • Sydney Pascetta (Ph.D.)
  • Olivia Bebenek (Ph.D..)
  • Alexandria Kellington (Ph.D.)
  • Morgan Mizzoni (M.Sc.)
  • Jenna Goodbrand (M.Sc.)
  • Sajid Muslun (M.Sc.)

Undergraduate Students

  • Tess Osorio-MacCready (4th year research project)
  • Joshua Steed (MBG co-op)
  • MBG*2040 – Foundations in Molecular Biology and Genetics
  • MBG*3040 - Molecular Biology of the Gene