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Shedding Light on Dark Protein Families

Assistant professor Debswapna Bhattacharya investigates "dark" protein families with a significant award from the National Institutes of Health.

By Virginia Speirs

Assistant professor Debswapna Bhattacharya is using a $1.86 million Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to further research “dark” protein families.

The five-year project aims to develop novel computational and data-driven methods to structurally annotate the “dark” protein families – protein families that are undiscovered by modern structure determination techniques and are inaccessible to molecular modeling. The study aims to gather key information in the understanding of biological systems at the molecular level. 

“Nearly a quarter of protein families are currently dark, where molecular conformation is completely unknown,” Bhattacharya said. “The key challenge is how to shed light on this unknown protein universe to gain a comprehensive understanding of biology and disease, thereby paving the way to structure-based drug design at a genomic scale.” 

Bhattacharya’s laboratory focuses specifically on the computational modeling of protein structures. Computational protein modeling plays a crucial role due to its scalability and wide applicability, he explained. 

“Latest developments on computational and data science based on artificial intelligence and machine learning are getting more and more matured,” Bhattacharya said. “We now can interrogate a biological system through the lens of computation. We can try to mine biological big data and develop a new generation of data-driven predictive models that can help us understand the unknown protein universe at the molecular level and their impact in human disease.” 

The MIRA is the second major award that Bhattacharya received in 2020. He was also awarded $557,340 through a National Science Foundation CAREER Award to develop novel computational and data-driven methods to substantially improve protein structure refinement, bringing protein models closer to biologically relevant experimental accuracy. In 2018, Bhattacharya’s research group earned international acclaim when it placed No. 9 in the world in the Community Wide Experiment on the Critical Assessment of Techniques for Protein Structure Prediction.