Professor Receives $1 Million NSF CAREER Award

Biochemist Patrick Frantom Earns NSF’s Most Prestigious Award for Young Scientists

Dr. Patrick Frantom
Dr. Patrick Frantom

From the June 2013 Desktop News The National Science Foundation (NSF) has selected Dr. Patrick Frantom, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, to receive a $1 million, five-year NSF CAREER Award for his research in understanding how enzymes evolve diverse properties and abilities. The CAREER Award is NSF’s most prestigious recognition of top performing young scientists.

Frantom, who joined the College’s faculty in 2009, studies the mechanisms of enzyme function. Enzymes are proteins that perform chemical reactions in a living cell. Enzymes are highly regulated in living systems, which means they are activated and deactivated in response to changes in their environment. How the enzymes cause this activity, known as allosteric regulation, is not well understood at the molecular level.

“The family of enzymes we are studying share a common structure, or ‘scaffolding’ which nature has diversified to allow for a wide range of chemical reactions and regulatory mechanisms. We want to investigate all versions of these scaffolds to map how differences in them can cause different reactions and cause the enzymes to turn on or turn off those reactions,” Frantom said.

Frantom’s long-term goal is to understand how allosteric and catalytic mechanisms work together in enzymes, which could impact how scientists use them in real-world applications.

Versions of the enzymatic scaffolding number in the thousands and require the use of sophisticated technology to organize them. Frantom has incorporated his knowledge of mechanistic enzymology with an approach known as bioinformatics to study the enzymes. Bioinformatics uses cutting-edge computational techniques to store, organize, and analyze information about molecules.

“Once organized, we can hopefully start to tease out trends in how certain changes occur in the scaffolding that effect functioning,” Frantom said.

Frantom is working with Dr. Patricia Babbitt at the University of California, San Francisco who pioneered bioinformatics techniques. A portion of Frantom’s NSF funding will allow a graduate student from his laboratory to train with Babbitt on the bioinformatics techniques and provide for additional computational equipment in the department.

Frantom’s grant also supports undergraduate student involvement. It will fund the creation of a laboratory course that will mimic key experiences of undergraduate research that focus on performing original hypothesis-driven experiments. In addition, the grant will fund upgrading facilities and equipment in the laboratories to support the new course.

The funding also supports students conducting original research in UA’s Emerging Scholars program. Former Emerging Scholars will be employed as researchers and have the opportunity to continue their research beyond the customary one-year term. The aim is to provide enhanced research mentoring opportunities to undergraduates studying biochemistry at UA.