Awards Database

Cottrell Scholar Awards - 2016

Aaron Leconte

Assistant Professor of Chemistry, The Claremont Colleges

Biochemical Characterization and Engineering of Luciferases through Statistical Coupling Analysis

The North American firefly (Photinus pyralis), also known as the “lightning bug,” gets its name from the fact that it glows and flickers in the evenings. This glowing comes from a chemical reaction in a specific protein, luciferase. This glowing light is known as bioluminescence and, when coupled with biological events and processes, it can be harnessed to track and record fundamental biological processes in whole organisms and deep tissues.

But there’s always room for improvement.

Aaron Leconte, assistant professor of chemistry, Keck Science Department of Claremont McKenna, Pitzer and Scripps Colleges, is attempting to both study and engineer this useful protein.

“Bioluminescence is very useful, but it could definitely be improved to create even more sensitive, precise and reliable imaging techniques,” Leconte notes.  “There are a long list of enzyme properties that scientists would love to be able to tweak, but proteins are incredibly complex machines.  We are working hard to think creatively about how to best tune these proteins to the needs of the field.” 

He and his undergraduate students are attempting to develop new techniques that will maximize the potential of finding advantageous properties while minimizing the possibility of diminishing other, biochemically important properties in luciferase (a common challenge in engineering proteins). They hope to use a bioinformatics approach (Statistical Coupling Analysis) to identify the most important amino acids for changing the function of the enzyme by carefully examining the evolutionary history of the enzyme.

The Cottrell Scholar Award supports both work in Leconte’s lab as well as incorporating the research into the classroom environment.  While Leconte’s group is performing the protein engineering in his research lab, introductory chemistry students will be performing the foundational biochemical experiments that will test the hypotheses generated through the aforementioned bioinformatics analysis. The program will give first-year undergraduate students the opportunity to participate in cutting-edge research and will fund opportunities for the students to interact with other scientists working on luciferase, jumpstarting the research careers of young scientists.

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