Awards Database

Cottrell Scholar Awards - 2015

Jennifer M. Heemstra

Assistant Professor of Chemistry , University of Utah

Fluorescent Biomolecular Labeling to Quantify Cellular Metabolites and Promote Independent Learning


A living cell is incredibly tiny and complex. While scientists have made great strides in understanding cellular processes over the past century, they still haven’t mastered all of the intricacies that occur in this highly networked environment.

Jennifer M. Heemstra, University of Utah assistant professor of chemistry, has received Cottrell Scholar funding to help push the boundaries of that knowledge.

Heemstra and her colleagues are working on a new method to shed light – quite literally -- on the small organic molecules that exist in cells and serve to carry information between proteins in a cell or even between different cells in an organism.

She notes that many therapeutics can alter the amounts of these molecules that cells produce, which can have positive or negative consequences. Using her approach, Heemstra says that “drug leads could be selected based upon how they interact with the cell as a whole, rather than based upon their interaction with a single protein.”

Heemstra intends to deploy small sensors composed of DNA to detect specific small molecules in living cells. When these sensors encounter their target molecule, they will fluoresce, or emit light, which can be detected using standard laboratory equipment. 

The key challenge that Heemstra notes is that these sensors would normally be destroyed by enzymes in the cell. So, they will be encapsulated in protective containers made of proteins, which will shield the DNA from the enzymes. The proposed research will explore the best method for encapsulating the DNA sensors in the protein cages, and also observe how the sensors behave in this confined space. This will provide a foundation for using these materials in the cellular environment to report on the levels of specific molecules of interest.

Heemstra, who is broadly involved in promoting interdisciplinary education and new pedagogical approaches at the University of Utah, is also using some of her Cottrell Scholar funding to create a new Advanced Chemical Biology Lab course that will expand opportunities for undergraduate students to engage in research.


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