New Faculty, New Technology to Strengthen Disease Research at UT Austin

September 27, 2016 • by Marc Airhart

Cryo-EM allows scientists to see with higher resolution than ever before a host of biological processes and conditions, including DNA repair, cancer and infectious disease.

A man sits in front of a large microscope

A $2 million recruitment grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) has paved the way for The University of Texas at Austin to welcome a scientist experienced in cutting-edge molecular biology technologies that are used to study disease and DNA repair.

David Taylor, a structural biologist, enhances UT Austin's base of expertise in a recently revitalized imaging technology known as cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). Cryo-EM allows scientists to see with higher resolution than ever before a host of biological processes and conditions, including DNA repair, cancer and infectious disease.

Cryo-EM allows researchers to make 3D models of cellular structures, molecules and viruses. Although scientists started using cryo-EM more than 20 years ago, it wasn't until 2012 that improvements in electron detectors and image processing made it possible to image structures with atomic scale resolution.

Before coming to UT Austin, Taylor worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley in the labs of Eva Nogales and Jennifer Doudna, pioneers in the study of CRISPR-Cas9. CRISPR-Cas9 has inspired a revolutionary new method for gene editing and is based on a natural defense mechanism that bacteria use against viruses.

Taylor and his UC Berkeley colleagues have been able to study the CRISPR defense mechanism in detail by employing cryo-EM. Earlier this month, the researchers published a paper in the journal Molecular Cell describing how one of several known CRISPR systems works. Using Cryo-EM brought about the key insight—that this particular flavor of CRISPR uses fewer proteins to do the same job as others.

Under the leadership of Dan Leahy, chair of the Department of Molecular Biosciences, and with Taylor's help, the College of Natural Sciences is building a new cryo-EM facility for use by researchers across the college. The new core facility will be located in the basement of the Larry R. Faulkner Nanoscience and Technology Building and is expected to be operational by May 2017.

"It's a state-of-the-art facility," says Taylor, now an assistant professor in the Department of Molecular Biosciences. "It's going to skyrocket structural biology at UT Austin."

With the new facility, Taylor plans to continue his work characterizing the structures of CRISPR molecules to better understand how they work. He will also partner with professor Tanya Paull to study the natural DNA repair mechanisms in humans that normally prevent genome instabilities that can cause cancer. Taylor hopes that these two lines of fundamental research will lead to better gene-editing techniques and better therapies for disease.

"Hopefully it will inspire people who don't normally do structural biology to come and collaborate with those who do," says Taylor. "The possibilities are endless."

The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, or CPRIT, was created after Texans approved a constitutional amendment authorizing the state to spend as much as $3 billion over 10 years to fund cancer research and prevention, making it one of the largest taxpayer-funded cancer research organizations in the country.

To date, CPRIT has awarded $51 million to researchers in the University of Texas at Austin's College of Natural Sciences (CNS).

In addition to Taylor, Leahy and Paull, the college's past recipients of CPRIT grants are: Jeffrey Barrick, Guangbin Dong, Lauren Ehrlich, Ilya Finkelstein, George Georgiou, Vishy Iyer, Jonghwan Kim, Edward Marcotte, Andreas Matouschek, Kyle Miller, Jonathan Sessler, Christopher Sullivan, Haley Tucker, Jason Upton and Steven Vokes.

Update, October 2017: ​The 2017 Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to three researchers who developed cryo-electron microscopy, a method that allows biochemists to "freeze biomolecules mid-movement and visualize processes they have never previously seen." This fall, UT Austin has opened its own cryo-EM facility, where researchers are beginning to explore new insights into the chemistry of life. Read on to learn about one of the faculty members involved with the new Sauer Laboratory for Structural Biology, and work planned within the College of Natural Sciences. 

Update, October 2020: The 2020 Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to two researchers, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna, "for the development of a method for genome editing." The two scientists discovered CRISPR-Cas9, genetic scissors which are based on a natural defense mechanism bacteria use against viruses, and showed that the tool can be used to precisely edit any DNA. Doudna was an advisor to David Taylor, featured in the piece below, while he was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley.


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