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    NIH, NSF Grants Help Advance Scientist’s Protein Research

    A University of Texas at Dallas scientist recently received two federal grants totaling $2.7 million to support research aimed at better understanding — and perhaps exploiting — the role of protein evolution and interactions in human health and disease.

    Dr. Faruck Morcos

    ) from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The grant () provides about $1.9 million over five years.

    Unlike a traditional research grant, MIRA grants offer investigators the flexibility to pursue a broader scientific question as it evolves, rather than being tied to one specific project. The grant program is part of the NIH’s strategy to bring innovation and risk-taking back to basic medical research.

    “The larger questions we are asking often guide us on winding courses of research,” Morcos said. “This support from the National Institutes of Health is special because we can explore a spectrum of areas and go where the work takes us, which I really value.”

    Morcos also received a , which provides him with more than $855,000 in funding over five years. 

    Both grants support his research on how proteins and RNA can change due to mutations and yet still maintain functional roles. The NIH support facilitates investigations of a variety of model systems and their potential biomedical applications. The NSF grant, which also has an educational outreach component, is aimed at building models of protein evolution.

    About CAREER Awards

    The Faculty Early Career Development Program supports early-career faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research and excellent education. The highly selective program is the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious award for junior faculty who are considered likely to become leaders in their fields.

    “When we hear about a mutated gene or protein, we typically think that means something goes wrong and that it suddenly does not work anymore,” he said. “That’s the case in the majority of mutations. However, my group is interested in mutated proteins that still perform their function, but maybe in a different way.”

    Morcos said a mutation might allow a protein to interact with other proteins that it previously was incompatible with — which could have positive or negative effects.

    “For example, in antibiotic resistance, sometimes there is a single change in a protein that allows a bacterium to be resistant to treatment with antibiotics,” Morcos said. “But this might not be because the protein has changed its function; rather, it might be that it has changed its partners — the other molecules it can interact with. We are studying these kinds of examples.  

    “Our work is novel because it is hard to predict such network-level effects that involve more than just a single molecule.”

    Morcos has developed a computational framework and statistical models to predict how changes to a protein’s structure — both changes that are allowed by nature and those that are not — affect the protein’s function.

    “We look at hundreds of thousands of possibilities. … But the models we are building will help us make predictions about how changes to a protein will affect its function, which might enable us to design proteins that can fight disease.”

    Dr. Faruck Morcos, assistant professor of biological sciences in the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics

    “We look at hundreds of thousands of possibilities — the ‘space’ is enormous; it’s astronomical,” Morcos said. “But the models we are building will help us make predictions about how changes to a protein will affect its function, which might enable us to design proteins that can fight disease. To tackle those problems, my lab has established important collaborations with other labs at UT Dallas and nationwide. I feel very fortunate to work in such a collaborative environment.”

    The CAREER award will support undergraduate and graduate student research aimed at creating new tools to promote the understanding of biomolecules and their evolution. Morcos’ group will develop 3D printing technologies and interactive software to engage general audiences in building and manipulating models of real biological molecules.

    “This kind of interactive, hands-on strategy is expected to serve as an effective mechanism for teaching the fundamental principles of biomolecular interactions,” Morcos said. “I am also excited about how this funding will help us reach underrepresented students in science by creating links with local community colleges and supporting student engagement in solving scientific questions.”

    More than a dozen undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers are part of Dr. Faruck Morcos’ lab in the Department of Biological Sciences.

    Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].