Author: nsfmcb

Congratulations to the winners of the 2018 Nobel Prize in chemistry

Congratulations to MCB funded-researcher Dr. Frances Arnold, recipient of the 2018 Noble Prize in chemistry. Dr. Arnold is honored for her role in developing the field of directed evolution. As a researcher at California Institute of Technology, Dr. Arnold based her work on the principles of evolution to improve enzyme function; she used error prone polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to introduce random mutations in a gene of interest, introduced those genes into an E. coli library, allowed the mutants to compete, and selected for mutants that improved function. Enzymes optimized through this process can improve results anywhere enzymes are used such as: medicine, biotechnology, biofuels, research, industrial production, and home cleaning and processing applications.

“Dr. Arnold transformed the field of protein engineering and did so at a time when there were very few women in the field.  She combatted gender bias in academia by excelling and demonstrating to those of us who followed her that it was possible,” observed Theresa Good, Deputy Division Director of MCB. Dr. Arnold’s award brings the total number of female awardees in chemistry to five of 180 recipients, representing 2.8 percent of awards in chemistry; the percent of all Nobel Prizes awarded to women is slightly less than six percent.

This year’s award is shared with Dr. George P. Smith, University of Missouri, and Dr. Gregory Winter, Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, UK, for their work on phage display. Click on the link to read the Statement on the Nobel Prize in Chemistry by NSF Director Dr. Frances Córdova.

New Funding Opportunities: Rules of Life Solicitations

a picture of a hand dripping drops of water onto a small plant with dramatic sunlight in the backgroundThe National Science Foundation recently announced two new solicitations: Understanding the Rules of Life: Epigenetics (NSF 18-600), and Understanding the Rules of Life: Building a Synthetic Cell (NSF 18-599). These NSF-wide opportunities are part of Understanding the Rules of Life: Predicting Phenotype, one of NSF’s 10  “Big Ideas” for future investment.


A headline banner reading "Understanding the rules of life: epigenetics" underneath of which is a cartoon of a short strand of DNA wrapped around three histones like three beads on a single string

Understanding the Rules of Life: Epigenetics (NSF 18-600) invites proposals which investigate heritable biological or chemical mechanisms that produce a phenotypic effect without alteration of the DNA sequence.  Projects must integrate education perspectives and research approaches from more than one research discipline (e.g., biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, geology, mathematics, physics, social and behavioral sciences).

Full proposals are due February 1, 2019 and can be submitted in one of two submission tracks:

(1) award duration of up to 3 years and a total budget of $500,000 or

(2) award duration of up to 5 years and a total budget of $3,000,000.

The specifics of the program priorities and areas of emphasis, as well as additional limitations and guidelines, can be found in the full solicitation.


A title banner reading "understanding the rules of life: building a synthetic cell" over an image of a plant root tip with each cell glowing green due to GFP attached to the cell wall

Understanding the Rules of life: Building a Synthetic Cell: An Ideas Lab Activity (NSF 18-599) invites researchers to apply to participate in an inter-disciplinary Ideas Lab focused on facilitating innovative research projects for designing, fabricating, and validating synthetic cells that express specified phenotypes. Up to $10,000,000 of funding is available for successful project proposals resulting from the Ideas Lab.

Building a synthetic cell is a grand challenge at the interface between biological, mathematical, computer and physical sciences and engineering.  Meeting this challenge requires simultaneous careful exploration of the social and ethical dimensions of such research as well as educating today’s students to engage in the activities and technologies required to develop and use synthetic cells.

To apply to this program, researchers should:

  • submit preliminary proposals due December 28, 2018,
  • participate, if selected, in the Ideas Lab workshop to be held February 25 – March 1, 2019, and
  • if invited to do so, submit, as part of a team, a full proposal due May 13, 2019.

Full details regarding the specifics of the research ideas, proposal limitations, and the application process can be found in the full solicitation.

A Letter From The Acting Assistant Director

Acting Assistant Director for the Biological Sciences, Dr. Joanne Tornow, recently published a letter clarifying some frequently asked questions about MCB’s new no-deadline solicitation. For full details about our solicitation see the recent blog post, the BIO Core Program solicitation FAQ, the full solicitation NSF 18-585, or contact your program director.

what’s your big idea?

What is it?   The NSF 2026 Idea Machine competition is an unprecedented opportunity to promote a new area of research that is important and exciting but not currently addressed by NSF. Ideas submitted will help set the stage for breakthrough research in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and STEM education through the nation’s 250th anniversary in 2026 and beyond.

How do I enter?   Submit your entry at the NSF 2026 Idea Machine website by October 26th, 2018.

Who’s eligible–and not eligible–to submit ideas?   All contestants must be either U.S. citizens, or permanent residents or legally reside in the U.S., and be over 14 years old on September 1, 2018. More details are available on the Eligibility & Rules page.


Sharing MCB Science – Unraveling the relationship between DNA winding and chromatin topology

A 3D model of DNA wrapped around nucleosomes

A model of circular nucleosome array

Cells tackle the complex task of packaging all their DNA into a tiny nucleus by spooling it around nucleosomes, sets of 8 specialized proteins called histones. Historically there has been variation in estimates in the number of times that DNA winds around each nucleosome. This number is known from x-ray crystallography to be about 1.7 superhelical turns; however, previous examination of circular nucleosome arrays indicated to researchers that the number of turns is closer to one. The Grigoryev lab at Pennsylvania State University has proposed an explanation.

Through a more direct approach using a combination of electrophoresis and electron microscopy, Dr. Grigoryev and his lab, in collaboration with Dr. Zhurkin lab at NIH, discovered that the number of turns and the space between nucleosomes is actually quite variable within the same segment of DNA. Furthermore, the distance between nucleosomes seems to influence the number of turns DNA makes per each nucleosome. They also noted that this variability of chromosome spacing could be a mechanism which chromatin domains use to control DNA packing. The findings were published in Science Advances.
DNA packs tightly to fit into the cell nucleus, but how dense it is and how the density is distributed across the genome also influences higher level organization such as chromatin shape and even chromosome shape and structure. Shape and structure, in turn, influence how DNA interacts with the environment around it. For example, the density of DNA-packing influences whether regulatory proteins can properly interact with a gene and therefore whether the gene is expressed. Understanding the mechanisms behind how these changes are managed can provide a better look into how DNA functions, which can expand our ability to understand and manipulate genetic processes.

This work was funded by the Genetic Mechanisms cluster of the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences, award #1516999.

Supplemental Funding Pays: Non-Academic Careers Class at UT-Knoxville

Although the Department of Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology (BCMB) at University of Tennessee, Knoxville, already had a well-established seminar series on career development, many faculty conversations revolved around how to introduce students to non-academic careers. The answer came in the form of a course named “Oh! The Places You’ll Go…with a PhD in Science.” Using a supplemental funding award (MCB 1616495), Dr. Maitreyi Das reimagined the seminar series.

“Oh! The Places You’ll Go…” built on the seminars by adding speakers from diverse career tracks and requiring students to prepare for each speaker through assigned reading, research on the speaker’s career field, and classroom discussion. After each seminar, students met with the speaker in an open forum to discuss the speaker’s career track, life events that led to the decision to pursue a particular expertise, and the logistics of transitioning to their non-academic specialty. The class also included segments on developing “soft skills,” led by Department Head Dr. Dan Roberts and Associate Department Head Dr. Gladys Alexandre. Skills developed included crafting an elevator pitch, assessing the need for and type of postdoctoral training, and interviewing skills.

Perhaps the most valuable change was requiring students to write an Individual Development Plan (IDP), says Dr. Das. Although the assignment was much more difficult for the students than initially anticipated, the exercise helped faculty realize that students did not know how to think about career development. The exercise helped students and faculty alike identify their respective strengths. The biggest benefit was that interactions between students, speakers, and faculty strengthened faculty commitment to helping students develop a career path. “It helped change department culture,” Dr. Das says.

“We expect this experience to provide a long-lasting impact on the ability of our departmental faculty to support and guide graduate students who wish to pursue different careers after their PhD,” says Dr. Das. “We also expect this course to become integrated into our Ph.D. training program. This program is helping students prepare for career paths they did not realize were available – let’s help our best people!”

Although the department of biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology (BCMB) at University of Tennessee, Knoxville, already had a well-established seminar series to introduce students to non-academic careers, conversation among faculty often revolved around how to do better prepare students for the workforce. Then, a panelist who’d recently served on an NSF merit review panel told Dr. Maitreyi Das, about supplemental funding offered by MCB. Dr. Das applied for the funding and used it to supplement the seminar series with intensive coursework. The MCB blog interviewed Dr. Das to learn more about the experience. Excerpts from that interview are posted below. What did you want to change about the seminar series? The previous seminar series (which the department plans to continue) invited a minimum of two speakers per semester to talk about their career paths. We focused on speakers whose PhDs have found success in non-traditional ways. However, attendance was optional; and neither students nor faculty seemed to be benefitting from the opportunity as much as expected. What was different about the course? Unlike the seminar series, which was optional, we required graduate students enrolled in the department’s PhD program to attend. We also required students to write an Individual Development Plan (IDP). Although this was much more difficult for them than we anticipated, there were several benefits: the exercise helped faculty understand that we have so much more work to do in helping students think about career development. Next, the IDP exercise helped both students and faculty become much more adept at identifying their strengths. Perhaps the biggest benefit was that interactions between students, speakers, and faculty increased faculty conversations and the will to do more to help students. It helped change department culture. Can you give us more details about the course? The course was named “Oh! The Places You’ll Go…with a PhD in Science!” It consisted of discussion and reading regarding each career track ahead of a visit and seminar by a selected speaker. Students then met in an open forum with each expert to discuss the speaker’s career track, life events that led to their decision to pursue particular expertise, as well as the logistics of how each got their start in their non-academic specialty. Apart from the valuable information that the students gathered, they also had the opportunity to network with the speakers. In the majority of instances, the speakers expressed enthusiasm for this effort and several even extended invitations to internships to interested students. In addition to these exercises, my colleagues [professors] Dan Roberts and Gladys Alexandre worked with the students on the development of their “soft” skills and provided tools to plan and prepare for the career of their choice. Topics discussed included developing and maintaining an individual development plan for goal setting and career planning, mentoring and networking, crafting an elevator pitch, postdoctoral training strategies in various settings and the need to assess whether a postdoc is required for a career. The students also engaged in group activities where they role-played various career tracks. What’s next? We expect this experience to provide a long-lasting impact on the ability of our departmental faculty to support and guide graduate students who wish to pursue different careers after their PhD, and expect this course to become integrated into our Ph.D. training program. Final thoughts? Let’s not limit our students to academia! This program is helping us to send scientists into the mainstream – let’s help our best people!

A few of the nearly 50 students enrolled in “Oh! The Places You’ll Go…with a PhD in Science pose with Dr. Das. Front, left to right: Udodirim Onwubiko, Brian Hercyk, Rosela Golloshi, Debalina Acharya. Back, left to right: Julie Rich, Dr. Maitreyi Das, Daniel DeGennaro, Kathleen King







mcb welcomes three new staff members

MCB has welcomed three new staff members to its ranks during the past several months. Dr. Manju Hingorani, who filled a rotator position as program director during 2014-2016, returns to MCB as a permanent program director in the Molecular Biophysics cluster. Allison Burrell, science assistant, joined MCB this past January; Bridget Johnson, program assistant, followed in March. Learn more about the unique experiences each brings to her respective role below. (more…)