Campus News

Prof will use NSF award to trace origin of protein’s family

Natarajan Kannan is a Georgia Cancer Coalition Distinguished Scholar

When people don’t communicate effectively, relationships suffer and entire organizations can fail. When cells don’t communicate effectively, disease and sometimes death follow.

Natarajan Kannan, an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, is tracing the origins of a protein family that plays a key role in communicating environmental signals in the cell. Over the next five years, the Georgia Cancer Coalition Distinguished Scholar will use $969,822 provided by the National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award program to gain an in-depth understanding of the evolution of kinases, a protein that controls cellular signaling pathways. The results could help researchers develop new strategies for treating a variety of diseases.

“Kinases are involved in a multitude of diseases, including cancer and Alzheimer’s,” said Kannan, a member of the UGA Institute of Bioinformatics. “A deeper understanding of the evolutionary design principles will provide new avenues for targeting these proteins in disease states.”

Most diseases involve some breakdown in cell communication. Cells affected by cancer do not respond to regulatory signals and replicate uncontrollably. Alzheimer’s disease disrupts nerve signal transmissions at particular synapses, which are junctions between nerve cells.

Kannan will measure the similarities and differences between kinases in eukaryotes—complex cells that contain -membrane-bound structures such as nuclei and mitochondria—and prokaryotes—simpler cells that lack internal membrane-bound structures and are believed to be precursors of eukaryotes. After identifying the protein sequence similarities and differences between various kinases as well as comparing their crystal structures and functional data, Kannan will create testable models of protein kinase evolution and regulation.

The models will help researchers identify molecular structural features shared by different classes of kinases and relate them to differences in activities.