Williams College Physicist Daniel Aalberts Awarded NIH Grant to Study Protein Expression

Media contact:  Noelle Lemoine, communications assistant; tele: (413) 597-4277; email: [email protected]

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., July 14, 2014—The National Institutes of Health has awarded Williams College physics professor Daniel Aalberts a three-year, $255,304 grant to study how to obtain sufficient yields of proteins.

“Understanding the 3D structure of the protein a gene encodes can help biologists understand its function,” explains Aalberts, whose research focuses on the physics of biological polymers. “This includes how similar that structure is to another protein, what effect a mutation in the protein sequence might have, or where a drug might bind.”

Until recently, research on protein production has focused on naturally occurring sequences, but many genes do not express proteins at a high enough level to conduct experiments. “Our work is trying to figure out what patterns distinguish the highly expressed genes from the low expression ones,” he says.

“Expressing proteins at high levels is important for many biotechnology applications ranging from drug production and discovery to structural biology,” says Aalberts, who teaches, among other things, a course in computational biology.

Synonymous mutations in a gene sequence encode the same final protein. “One of our goals is to figure out how to introduce synonymous mutations that make the low-expression genes behave more like the high-expression ones, without changing the identity of the protein produced.” Aalberts says.

“In addition to moving science and biotechnology forward, this research is great experience and fine training for students,” Aalberts says. Mike Flynn ’15 and Ashwin Narayan ’16 are gaining that experience in Aalberts’ lab this summer.

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Founded in 1793, Williams College is the second-oldest institution of higher learning in Massachusetts. The college’s 2,000 students are taught by a faculty noted for the quality of their teaching and research, and the achievement of academic goals includes active participation of students with faculty in their research. Students’ educational experience is enriched by the residential campus environment in Williamstown, Mass., which provides a host of opportunities for interaction with one another and with faculty beyond the classroom. Admission decisions on U.S. applicants are made regardless of a student’s financial ability, and the college provides grants and other assistance to meet the demonstrated needs of all who are admitted.

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