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Two BC Chemistry Professors Selected as Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group Distinguished Investigators

The Allen Institute selected Boston College chemistry professors Abhishek Chatterjee and Eranthie Weerapana as two of its 2022 Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group Distinguished Investigators in December.

“[Winning the award] speaks to the level of science of the BC chemistry department,” Chatterjee said. “We really have built a world class department that’s doing world class science, and it’s just a recognition of that.”

The Allen Distinguished Investigator program funds research teams that have the potential to improve their respective fields. According to the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, Chatterjee and Weerapana are two of 16 newly named investigators working in eight different teams. 

Chatterjee said the Allen Frontiers Group chooses research challenges as part of an annual competition, and then scientists develop solutions in hopes of winning the award. One of this year’s topics was how long each individual protein typically exists within a cell.

“Proteins are created in the cell from our genome, and people have traditionally measured them at one given point of time, right,” Chatterjee said. “So, you open up a cell and you measure all the proteins that are present there. But what is less known is that, you know, how long different proteins are there for.”

Chatterjee said in the lab, he and Weerapana work on reprogramming translation—how proteins are made in a cell. They do this to introduce new amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, that are not present in nature. These amino acids contain chemical functionalities called “click handles” that can be tagged with a label in the cell, Chatterjee said. These labels allow the scientists to monitor the protein’s growth and behavior. 

“You’re getting a sampling of all the proteins that particular cell is making at any given slice of time,” Chatterjee said. “And using that, then you can actually monitor, let’s say, you label the proteins that are made between time x and time y. Then you basically put that signal away and you stop the proteome labeling, but now we can monitor the labeled proteome and how they’re behaving over time.”

According to Weerapana, there are many ways to approach studying the lifespan of proteins in cells, but she and Chatterjee had a more advantageous approach to the research question.

“I think we just had a unique approach to addressing those problems,” Weerapana said. “So there are many methods out there that allow you to study the lifespan of proteins, but I think our approach had significant advantages over some of the existing methods that are out there.”

Through the award, Chatterjee said the pair will receive about $1.3 million over three years to fund their research. Weerapana said part of this money will fund technology, while the other portion will allow them to apply the technology in the lab by creating and labeling amino acids in cells.

“There’s two aspects to it—one is a technology development angle, so we want to be able to develop a core technology that allows you to study protein lifespan in biological systems, and we want this to be a technology that other research groups and other scientists can use for this application,” Weerapana said. “And then the second part of it is that we then want to use our own technology to study a biological problem that is of interest to us.”

Chatterjee said he and Weerapana are looking forward to furthering their research with the support of the award.

“We’re excited to get that support and, you know, really put a lot of effort into this project and make this dream a reality,” Chatterjee said.

January 22, 2023
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