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Brandon Okeke Wins Student Legacy Award

Brandon Okeke headshotBrandon Okeke, a biochemistry senior, is one of two accomplished undergraduates who will be honored with the Student Legacy Award at our annual Heman Sweatt Symposium on Civil Rights. He is also the 2020 recipient of the Texas Exes’ Edward S. Guleke Student Excellence Award. Read on to learn more about his experience here on campus, the life wisdom he gained in Beijing, China, and how his hard-working mother inspired him to pursue a rewarding career in medicine.

Programs and activities: Afrikan American Affairs, Heman Sweatt Center for Black Males (formerly AAMRI), Texas Blazers, Black Health Professions Organization, Summer Health Professions Education Program in New Orleans, La.

Finding his center…Early into his freshman year, Okeke found his community within the Multicultural Engagement Center (MEC), a space on campus that educates and empowers students to become leaders and future gamechangers. “The staff are great at finding us opportunities. Whether it’s scholarships, internships or study abroad, they provide so much in one space. While working with students and advisors and staff, especially Malik Crowder, I learned so much about myself and about how other people think.”

Getting organized and mobilized…Among his many duties, he planned and organized a number of events—from New Black Student Weekend to professional development workshops to Title IX info sessions. “It’s easy to get lost on a campus with 50,000 students, so we’re reaching out to students early on to let them know that the MEC is here for them. It has really helped me feel more comfortable with my surroundings and helped me realize that I belong here.”

Beijing bound…In spring 2017, Okeke traveled to Beijing, China with his fellow study abroad students participating in the DDCE’s signature Entrepreneurship in China and the U.S. program. Along the way, he gained new perspectives about himself and others. “I’ll never forget the moment when I climbed to the top of the stairsteps to the Forbidden City that overlooked the entire city of Beijing. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I’m here—and there’s really nothing I can’t do.’ I made this reality for myself.”

A scientist at heart… After his trip abroad, Okeke followed his career path with a renewed sense of confidence—a path that aligns with his lifelong passion for science. “Science has had my heart right from the jump. When I was young, I used to make my own chemistry sets and conduct experiments to see how things worked. During my freshman year, I read my biology book just for fun.”

Rising to greatness…Now as Okeke closes in on his senior year, he’s excited to study medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. His interest in the medical field stems from his admiration of his mother, who overcame a great deal of adversity to become a senior-level nurse at St. Joseph Medical Center in Houston, Texas. “She was one of the best nurses in the hospital. She worked really hard and I’ve always looked up to her. I know that if I work just as hard, I could be great as well.”

 

Cross-posted from the Division of Diversity & Community Engagement.

UT Bioscientist Receives Antiviral Research Award

Jason McLellan, molecular bioscience associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, was the 2020 recipient of the William Prusoff Memorial Award from the International Society for Antiviral Research, which honors a young scientist who has shown excellence in antiviral research and promise for future contributions to the field. 

McLellan’s research focuses on the structure of certain proteins as infections progress, which informs the development of medicine used to treat disease. One of his research interests focuses on human respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which is a virus causing severe lower respiratory tract infections, particularly in young children and the elderly. A certain part of RSV, called the F protein, changes shape during an infection. If the immune system encounters the F protein in this altered shape, the antibodies it produces are less effective than when the F protein is in its pre-infection shape. Using a structure-based approach, McLellan engineered the F protein to take away its shapeshifting ability and in turn allow the body to produce more effective antibodies in response. 

McLellan previously received the Etter Early Career award from the American Crystallographic Association in 2017 and the 2019 Viruses Young Investigator in Virology Prize for his work on RSV. 

McLellan graduated from Wayne State University with a degree in chemistry, and earned his Ph.D. from the John Hopkins University School of Medicine. He joined the biochemistry department at Dartmouth Medical School, and in 2018 moved his lab to the University of Texas at Austin, where he became an associate professor in the department of molecular biosciences. 

Georgiou Honored with Chemical Engineering Literature Prize

George Georgiou, a professor in the Departments of Molecular Biosciences, Chemical Engineering, and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, received the William H. Walker Award for Excellence in Contributions to Chemical Engineering Literature at the annual American Institute of Chemical Engineers meeting this month.

The award is given to a member who has made an outstanding contribution to chemical engineering literature which is of interest and importance to the chemical engineering profession. 

Georgiou’s research focuses on the development and discovery of protein therapeutics, which are proteins engineered in a laboratory for pharmaceutical use to supplement essential proteins for a variety of purposes like insulin for diabetes and erythropoietin for anemia. These proteins can be used in vivo (that is, on living organisms) rather than tissue samples for testing, which allows scientists to see the overall effects of an experiment on a living subject.

Georgiou graduated with his doctorate in chemical engineering from Cornell University in 1987. After coming to UT Austin as an assistant professor of chemical engineering in 1986, Georgiou became a professor in chemical and biomedical engineering, and in molecular biosciences, and served on various chairs for the University. Georgio currently serves as a Dula D. Cockrell Centennial Chair in Engineering.

Among his many honors, he was elected to the National Academy of Inventors (2015), American Academy of Arts & Sciences (2015) and the National Academy of Medicine (2011). He was also named UT Austin’s Inventor of the Year in 2014.

Mutant Roundworms Might Shed Light on Causes of Ribosome Disorders

mutant c elegans700 2In a paper published in the journal Developmental Cell last month, researchers from The University of Texas at Austin gained insights into how tissues diversify during embryonic development. These initial findings may provide clues about the causes of ribosomopathies, human disorders involving ribosomes, the molecular machines within cells that produce proteins.

Prominent Plant Biologist Keiko Torii Joins Faculty

Prominent Plant Biologist Keiko Torii Joins Faculty

Keiko Torii

A plant biologist whose work has implications for the medical and agricultural fields, as well as improving plant resiliency in the face of climate change, is making the move to Texas this year. Professor Keiko Torii, a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator and plant biologist, will join the faculty of the Molecular Biosciences Department at The University of Texas at Austin in September 2019.

Torii studies functional tissue patterning, stem cell maintenance and differentiation and how plant cells determine function.

Before joining the faculty of the University of Washington, Torii studied biochemistry and biophysics at the University of Tsukuba in Japan. During her post-doctoral work, she discovered for the first time that plants have receptors that perceive signals from neighboring cells, similar in structure to insulin receptors in humans. Torii recalls that she was truly fascinated about her work--as it suggested that the plant cells, like our human cells, can talk to each other using a similar type of receptor. Indeed, she initially wanted to study basic biomedical science in college, but she made a dramatic change in her career decision to pursue plant molecular biology instead.

“When I heard about (plant genetic engineering) in a lecture, I thought that because the field is just blooming, perhaps there is room for opportunity here,” she said. “I felt like there was a huge prairie or open land in front of me.”

Torii is a founding member of the Institute of Transformative BioMolecules at Nagoya University, part of Japan’s World Premier International Research Center Initiative, pursuing cross-disciplinary research of synthetic chemistry and plant/animal biology. She was a winner of the Saruhashi Prize in 2015, a prize recognizing an outstanding and influential woman scientist in Japan each year. Torii is also an elected fellow of American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS) and American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB).

Much of Torii’s recent work has centered on plant stomata, the mouth-like structure on the surfaces of land plants that allow for gas and moisture to be exchanged with the atmosphere. How the stomata operate, and how different plant cells communicate with each other about which ones will become stomata has been an important question in her work.

“Stomata are only 10 to 20 microns in size, but the total water content of Earth’s atmosphere is estimated to cycle through plant stomata every six months,” Torii said. “Everything plants do is so critical to our survival and plant science is becoming more important in every aspect.”

Torii said she was attracted to the University of Texas because of the potential for collaboration and integrative approaches across fields of medicine, molecular biology and plant biology.

“Texas offers a unique environment for me to pursue this very basic developmental biology while getting more into plant resilience research, especially in light of changing global climate,” she said.

microscopy image of mutant plant epidermis

Image above: In order for stomata to function, they have to be spread out and evenly distributed within a leaf surface. By tweeting the activity of a ‘master regulatory’ gene that drive differentiation of stomata, one can convert all cells on a leaf surface to become stomata. Shown is a microscopy image of such mutant epidermis. Pink color highlights the outlines of individual cells, most of them differentiating into tiny months (stomata made of a pair of guard cells surrounding a pore). Green color is from engineered Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) that marks the differentiation of stomatal progenitor cells.” Images taken by Dr. Kylee Peterson (former Torii lab member)

The Making of a Functional Ribosome

The Making of a Functional Ribosome

ribosome

The Taylor and Johnson laboratories in the Department of Molecular Biosciences have revealed how the final puzzle piece is inserted to make a functional ribosome, the incredible cellular machine that creates all proteins in cells. Using cryo-electron microscopy at the recently opened Sauer Structural Biology Laboratory in the College of Natural Sciences, their study, published in Nature Communications, presents six snapshots of the ribosome during its assembly. 

Postdoctoral fellow Yi Zhou, the first author of the paper, showed how the final piece, called Rpl10, is inserted to create the catalytic center where all cellular proteins are stitched together. Genetics performed by Sharmishtha Musalgaonkar, also a postdoc and the second author of the study, confirmed that this concert of events leading to Rpl10 insertion is required in living cells. 

Research in the Johnson laboratory is funded by the National Institutes of Health. Research in the Taylor laboratory is funded by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, the Welch Foundation, and the Army Research Office. 

McLellan Awarded Young Investigator in Virology Prize

McLellan1Associate Professor Jason McLellan won the 2019 Viruses Young Investigator in Virology Prize. He will address attendees at the 2020 Viruses Conference in Barcelona, Spain (Feb 5-7, 2020), and receive a financial award and plaque.

"His work has led to significant advances in our understanding of broadly neutralizing antibody binding to the V1/ V2 domain of the HIV-1 envelope glycoprotein the structural basis for neutralization of respiratory syncytial virus," said Viruses Editor-in-Chief, Eric O. Freed.

McLellan also was featured earlier this month in a cover article in the Austin American-Statesman about how the University of Texas System’s endowment supports recruiting top faculty members. McLellan, who joined the faculty in 2017, was already doing groundbreaking research with implications for potential therapies and vaccines to treat viruses such as HIV, RSV, MERS and SARS. He previously was a faculty member at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth. 

Biologists Find Day and Night Pathways Regulating Plant Growth Vigor

Arabidopsis hybrids

Photo: Hybrid plants (middle two) grow larger and more vigorously than the parents (left and right).

Scientists are slowly unravelling the complex molecular pathways that regulate growth vigor in plant hybrids, with the goal of eventually developing hybrid crops that can grow faster and more productively, while at the same time doing a better job of resisting stress such as heat, drought and pests. Many crops such as corn are grown as hybrids for better yield and traits.

In a new study out this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from The University of Texas at Austin and Peking University identified two new pathways that influence plant growth in hybrids of Arabidopsis, a weedy plant in the mustard family. One pathway works in the daytime via compounds in the circadian clock, a central regulator for plant growth; the other works at night via compounds called phytochrome interacting factors.

These two pathways work by turning up or down a hybrid plant’s production of ethylene, a hormone which inhibits vegetative growth. Because these pathways exist in all plants including most commercially important crops—such as corn, cotton, lettuce and tomatoes—altering ethylene production in these crops might boost yield too.

This project was a collaboration between four different research groups, headed by the D. J. Sibley Centennial Professor Z. Jeffrey Chen, assistant professor Hong Qiao, and professor Enamul Huq, all three in the Department of Molecular Biosciences at UT Austin; and Xing Wang Deng, professor and Dean of the School of Advanced Agriculture Sciences and School of Life Sciences at Peking University.

Chen said there are several ways the new findings of regulating plant growth vigor might be used to boost crop yields: plant breeders could do genetic tests to identify parent plants for cross breeding that reduce ethylene production; biotech companies could genetically engineer crops with lower ethylene production; or farmers could apply chemicals that inhibit ethylene production in crops growing in the field.

arabidopsis700

Photo credit: Alberto Salguero Quiles. Image used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Study of Immune Protein Could Help Fight Tuberculosis, Other Pathogens

Scientists at UT Austin have revealed how a protein called ISG15 helps the human immune system fight certain pathogens, including the microbe that causes tuberculosis. In 2012, the group was part of a study that demonstrated that ISG15 stimulates the release of a cytokine, Interferon-g, important in the response to pathogenic bacteria. With this latest work, published this week in the journal Molecular Cell, these scientists have identified the cell surface receptor for ISG15 and determined the initial steps in how it activates the secretion of a range of cytokines.

Jon Huibregtse, UT Austin professor of molecular biosciences who led the study, said this may provide new insights into how to modulate immune responses and treat microbial infections.

“We think we may be on the trail of an entirely new mechanism for stimulating cytokine secretion,” said Huibregtse, “and that this might have implications for a wide variety of infectious diseases.”

Read the paper: Extracellular ISG15 Signals Cytokine Secretion through the LFA-1 Integrin Receptor

Fall 2017 Letter from the Chair

What better example is there of how “What Starts Here Changes the World” than the legacy of our UT Austin alumni? This fall, the College of Natural Sciences inducted into its Hall of Honor alumna Gail Dianne Lewis, who has done life-saving research with Genentech to produce effective new treatments for patients with the aggressive HER2-positive form of breast cancer. Another alum, celebrated immunotherapy pioneer Dr. James Allison, made TIME magazine’s list of the world’s most influential people and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts & Sciences this year. Capping it all, the 2017 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was recently shared by our alum Michael Young for discovering the molecular circuits underlying circadian rhythms.

A revolution in human health is coming about not only because of our alumni, but through ongoing efforts at The University of Texas at Austin. The groundbreaking work our researchers are doing, increasingly in coordination with faculty in the Dell Medical School, is ushering in a new era of biomedical research and education on campus. You’ll find evidence of it with our outstanding new faculty members, our exciting new cryo-electron microscopy facility, and our remarkable graduate students and undergraduates. Your support for the outstanding research and amazing people in our Texas Molecular Biosciences community ensures that the “What Starts Here…” legacy continues for generations to come. More news from the Department is here and on the College website. Please consider a gift to help support our work.

Daniel Leahy
Chair, Department of Molecular Biosciences

 

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03 Jul 2020@ 12:30PM - 01:30PM
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