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Chemist Awarded Prestigious NIH Grant to Study Metals in Proteins and Enzymes

Chemist Awarded Prestigious NIH Grant to Study Metals in Proteins and Enzymes

Emily Que, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Texas at Austin, has been awarded a five-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop tools to study metal- containing enzymes and proteins. The research has potential implications across a broad spectrum of human health areas including cancer, fertility, diabetes, and infectious disease research.

Emily Que, assistant professor of chemistry. Photo courtesy of The University of Texas at Austin.

"We are making molecules that can interact with metals that are tightly bound to proteins, called metalloproteins, so that we can understand where they are found in the cell and how that changes under different physiological and disease conditions," Que said. "We want to use the tools we develop to understand how that metal can come in and out of that protein, how we can visualize that process, and how cells actually control where the metals are under different circumstances."

Que's research largely revolves around zinc, which is essential to life's DNA transcription process, as well as cellular respiration and tissue remodeling. During her postdoctoral work, Que studied fertilization and found that eggs use zinc as a signaling molecule to communicate with sperm cells. Aberrant zinc levels are important in the context of breast and prostate cancer, and zinc plays an important role in insulin-secreting cells and conditions like diabetes. "The more we understand about zinc biology, the more we can build strategies to improve human health in these different areas," Que said.

While metalloproteins and metalloenzymes are regularly studied by molecular biologists, Que hopes to bring a chemist's perspective, studying the molecules created in her lab in a complex living system, rather than in isolated test tubes.

"The thing that really gets me excited is when we can study metalloproteins in the dynamic and complex environment of a living cell or organism ," Que said.

One of the projects that is being pursuing under this grant is a recent collaboration with the Fast Lab in the School of Pharmacy. Que is developing fluorescent sensors that bind to zinc-dependent enzymes expressed by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. They can add their probes to bacteria expressing these enzymes and the bacteria glow. They envision using these tools to identify antibiotic-resistant bacteria and to develop drugs to combat antibiotic resistance.

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Friday, 06 December 2019

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