Former WRF Innovation Fellows

BENJAMIN GROVES, PhD – Collaborating PI: Georg Seelig, UW Electrical Engineering

Benjamin Groves_1Signal processing is central to biology. The response of cells to internal and external cues is critical to many fundamental biological phenomena, from multicellular development, to the efficiency of microbial metabolism, to how diseases progress. In nature, cells process information in many ways, but common to all cells is protein-based signaling. Proteins are the nuts and bolts of the cell, and protein-based signaling offers speed, versatility and dynamic properties that are not seen in other types of signaling pathways. A large number of protein signaling pathways are based on kinases, which by catalyzing the addition of a phosphate moiety onto specific target proteins are able to effect a conformational change, trigger an interaction with yet another protein or even activate another kinase. Being able to build such pathways would deepen our understanding of them and would be very powerful. However, two hurdles stand in the way:

(1) There are only a small number of well-characterized parts. Many proteins are modular, with certain functions being confined to a sub-region of the protein. Moreover, many of these protein modules continue to operate even in the context of a different protein, making it possible to mix and match parts to make new functional proteins. Such an approach can be used to control protein signaling. In much the same way as a relay race, one signaling protein must recognize the next in order to transmit the signal. This can be accomplished by using complementary protein interaction domains. Along these lines, Ben is collaborating with Dr. Daniel Adriano-Silva in David Baker’s lab to develop methods to facilitate the large-scale design and high-throughput functional testing of novel protein interaction domains. (2) We don’t always know which parts are necessary to make a functional kinase. Though the addition of a protein interaction domain can direct a kinase towards a novel target, it does not always mean that the target is phosphorylated in the desired fashion, this is particularly true if the target is another kinase.

Ben is investigating how to direct these versatile signaling proteins to novel targets, either by using them to control the degradation of another protein, or the activity of another kinase. Ben joined Georg Seelig’s group as a postdoc in 2011 and became an Institute for Protein Design post-doctoral Fellow in 2014. He is interested in expanding our understanding of how cells control their behavior through the construction of novel signaling pathways.

ZHIZHI WANG, PhD – Collaborating PI: Wenxing Xu, UW Biological Structure

Zhizhi_WangAs a WRF Innovation Fellow at the Institute for Protein Design, Zhizhi is working on designing bio-orthogonal E3 ubiquitin ligases that can be specifically activated by cell-permeable agonists using RNF146-iso-ADPR as the template. Zhizhi will further convert the design into inducible protein knockout system in cells and model organisms. This system may allow for knocking down a protein in an inducible and tunable manner. Development and optimization of such systems will not only provide a powerful tool for biological research, but may also have profound implications in therapeutics.  

Zhizhi graduated with B.S in Biological Sciences from Peking University, Beijing, China in 2007, and then joined the Biological Physics, Structure and Design Graduate Program at the University of Washington. His thesis work was performed in the lab of Dr. Wenqing Xu in the Department of Biological Structure where he studied how a protein post-translational modification called poly(ADP-ribosyl)ation is recognized by WWE domains and how it is degraded by poly(ADP-ribose) glycohydrolase using X-ray crystallography. After graduation in 2012, Zhizhi continued working in Dr. Wenqing Xu’s lab. Recently, in close collaboration with Dr. Rachel Klevit’s lab in the Department of Biochemistry at the UW, he identified the first small molecule (iso-ADPR) inducible E3 ubiquitin ligase (RNF146), whose activity is switchable by ligand binding.

YALAN XING, PhD – Collaborating PI: Hannele Ruohola-Baker, UW ISCRM

photo-1Yalan plans to extend her research interest to the understanding of the molecular mechanism underlying early hESC developments: the regulation of epigenetic changes during naïve to primed hESC transition. Yalan has collaborated with Dr. James Moody at the IPD to design and synthesize polycomb EED binding inhibitors, which mimic the binding between EED and EZH2 (methyltransferase for H3K27me3) and will be used to disrupt the endogenous EED-EZH2 binding. This inhibitor will be used to test if the EED/EZH2 interaction is essential for epigenetic changes during the naïve to primed hESC transition. In the long run, Yalan will design and synthesize respective binding proteins at the IPD to disrupt multiple interfaces potentially required for EZH2 activity.

During her PhD study with Prof. Willis Li in University of Rochester, Yalan investigated the transgenerational epigenetic inheritance in model organisms, and characterized the requirement for heterochromatin modification in the germline stem cells maintenance, which is through interaction with JAK/STAT signaling. Her post-doctoral training with Prof. Hannele Ruohola-Baker lab in University of Washington has granted her the opportunity to further pursue her interest in stem cell biology. Using the model organism Drosophila, Yalan conducted genetic screens for essential factors in germline stem cell self-renewal and later on elucidated the molecular mechanism of how stem cells are protected against apoptosis through signals from apoptotic neighbor cells. Meanwhile, Yalan used the human iPSCs to demonstrate the differential roles of the Hypoxia-inducible factors (HIFs) and metabolic shifts during the reprogramming process. She plans to bring her expertise in these fields to her WRF project.