Emory University faculty members, Justin Gallivan, PhD, assistant professor of chemistry, and Peng Jin, PhD, assistant professor of human genetics at Emory University School of Medicine, have received Beckman Young Investigators Awards from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation of California.
The awards help provide research support to the most promising young faculty members in the early stages of their academic careers in the chemical and life sciences. Drs. Gallivan and Jin each received $264,000 and are among 24 scientists in the country to receive the Beckman award for 2005.
For the past year, Dr. Gallivan's lab has engineered bacteria to produce new molecules that could potentially benefit humans. Dr. Gallivan is working with molecules known as enantiomers that exist as mirror-image pairs, which individually can have drastically different effects in the body. Like a pair of human hands, enantiomers are identical in structure, but their mirror image is not superimposable on the original. Just as trying to put a left-handed glove on your right hand doesn't work, one enantiomer may interact with an enzyme while the opposite- handed enantiomer of the same compound does not.
Dr. Gallivan's goal is to develop bacteria that will produce single enantiomers, which is particularly challenging since the enzymes in the bacteria that carry out the chemical reactions are not always perfect, and sometimes produce mixtures of both enantiomers. With the support from the Beckman Foundation, Dr. Gallivan hopes to develop a new method of discovering enzymes that produce only the desired single enantiomer of a compound. He expects that his lab can improve the pace of discovering these enzymes by at least one thousand-fold over traditional methods, which may ultimately accelerate the synthesis of single enantiomer pharmaceuticals.
Dr. Jin studies an important new class of small RNA molecules, first discovered less than a decade ago, called micro-RNAs (miRNAs). Unlike most RNAs, whose job is to translate the genetic code contained in DNA molecules into proteins, miRNAs do not "code" for proteins. Instead, scientists believe they play a critical role in controlling gene expression, cell differentiation and tissue development.
Dr. Jin is studying the role of miRNAs in the brain, specifically in learning and memory, neurodegeneration and regulation of gene expression. He plans to use his Beckman award to unravel the mechanisms used by neural stem cells to generate distinct cell types, focusing on the role of miRNAs. He already has developed several new research tools that will allow him to analyze the role of miRNAs throughout the genome, and particularly in the brain.