Congratulations to Daniel K. Owens, PhD, recipient of a 2021 National Science Foundation CAREER Award!
Among the most prestigious honors in academia, the award cuts across all fields of science and is given to a very limited number of faculty across the country. It is a five-year (not three-year) grant and doesn’t skimp on the financial provision: Daniel will receive $876K to support his project, “Determining the Metabolic Organization and Enzymology of the Fundamentally Important Flavonoid Biosynthetic Pathway.”
“I am beyond thrilled to be awarded this NSF-CAREER grant and with it, the opportunity to continue this research and be able to work with and mentor the next generation of scientists,” says Daniel, an Assistant Professor in the Dept. of Molecular Biosciences and Bioengineering.
Expanding our understanding of plant metabolism is a long-time passion for Daniel. In fact, his very first undergraduate research experience was in examining the biochemistry of flavonoid biosynthesis. With the NSF support, a primary research goal will be to explore “metabolons,” three-dimensional representations that are more holistic and realistic than two-dimensional models.
“Many plants use the extra energy from photosynthesis to make secondary metabolites for various purposes, such as sunscreens, signaling, protection, etc.,” Daniel explains. “The traditional way to portray that metabolic pathway is to illustrate the substrate (inputs) and products (outputs) of each step, along with the order in which these steps occur. Similar to a blueprint: we know what goes in and what comes out.”
However, two-dimensional models can’t tell us what actually happens inside the plant, such as how the enzymes are arranged within an actual, living organism to perform activities, or how compounds come together in different ways to make different chemical processes. For example, how a citrus flavonoid is formed inside an orange to directly influence the taste characteristics.
“Metabolon enzymes come together in specific ways, similar to making a machine in an assembly line,” Daniel says. “So how compounds interact in 3-D will determine how that machine gets formed, and which product gets made in the end.”
“It’s a fundamental question, but if we can figure it out, we can potentially copy it synthetically to make an orange sweeter, or make new antibiotics and other medicines. People have tried to do this before, but with limited success – and I think it’s because the strategies were based on 2-D models. I think 3-D will give us more powerful infrastructure in which to work, an extra level of information we need to be successful. It’s going be a big jump forward.”
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The National Science Foundation CAREER awards are in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through research and education, and the integration of these endeavors in the context of their organizations' missions. The awards, presented once each year, include a federal grant for research and education activities for five consecutive years.