News Release: Research , School of Medicine

Feb. 17,  2010

National Science Foundation Gives Emory Biochemist Five-Year CAREER Award

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Christine M. Dunham, PhD, assistant professor of biochemistry at Emory University School of Medicine, an Early Career Development (CAREER) Award. The five-year award of $1 million will support Dunham's research project on "Structure-function studies of bacterial toxin-ribosome complexes."

Ribosomes, the factories where proteins are assembled based on the genetic code, can be found inside every cell of every living thing. Several varieties of bacteria produce toxins that disable ribosomes and prevent human cells from synthesizing proteins.

These varieties include Diphtheria, Shigella and Shigella toxin-producing E. coli (STEC). One strain of STEC, E. coli O157:H7, sometimes contaminates ground meat and can cause severe diarrhea. O157:H7 is thought to cause thousands of cases of the life-threatening hemolytic uremic syndrome every year in the United States.

The aim of Dunham's project is to produce detailed three-dimensional snapshots of how bacterial toxins interact with ribosomes through the structural biology technique of X-ray crystallography. The research could lead to new antibiotics as well as a better understanding of how such toxins interfere with protein synthesis.

"The use of X-ray crystallization technology to elucidate the atomic level structure of the various states of the ribosome is important and exciting work," says Patrick Dennis, PhD, program director for molecular genetics at the National Science Foundation. "Dr. Dunham has an outstanding background in this area and this project will provide important new insights into the function of the ribosome and how toxins interfere with the activity of the ribosome."

Ribosomes are particularly challenging to crystallize because they are large and have many parts compared to other molecular machines in the cell. However, Dunham has gained particular expertise in this area. As a postdoctoral fellow, she was part of a team working with Venki Ramakrishnan at the Medical Research Council's Laboratory for Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England. Ramakrishnan earned part of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on ribosome structure.

Dunham also shares a grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) with colleagues at the Georgia Institute of Technology studying the ribosomes in "primitive" bacteria. Bacteria that live in extreme environments, such as hot springs or the Antarctic, are thought to give scientists a clue about what life could be like on Mars. 

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