Ha An Nguyen receives 2021 SER-CAT Young Investigator Award

Graduate scholar Ha An Nguyen (Dunham Group) has been selected as the recipient of the 2021 SER-CAT Young Investigator Award. The SouthEast Regional Collaborative Access Team is an organization consisting of 20 Member and 4 Associate User institutions that provides third generation x-ray capabilities to macromolecular crystallographers and structural biologists located in the southeastern region of the United States. The award will be presented at the annual SER-CAT Symposium hosted by St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, TN on March 19, 2021. Because of COVID, this year’s SER-CAT Symposium will be held online. Ha An will give an invited lecture at the symposium.

The SER-CAT Award recognizes early career researchers making use of X-ray crystallography in their research to determine the three-dimensional structure of a macromolecule at an atomic level. This indispensable technique is critical for understanding the structure and function of biological molecules such as drugs, proteins, nucleic acids, and even viruses. “

The Dunham Group uses crystallography, in addition to other biochemical and structural techniques, to elucidate mechanisms that regulate translation, also known as protein synthesis, a highly coordinated process where many RNA and protein factors need to come together in a precise and accurate order, in order to synthesize all the cellular proteins that is required for growth and survival. The SER-CAT committee described an award decision “without hesitation” based in part on the strength of Ha An’s “well-written” contributions as first author of a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, with SER-CAT Associate Director John P. Rose stating: “You are to be commended for the scientific impact you have made at this stage of your career.”

“We solved X-ray crystallography structures of bacterial ribosomes bound to different tRNA-mRNA pairs and found a previously unrecognized mechanism with which the ribosome can distinguish correct tRNAs from incorrect ones,” explains Ha An of the work covered in this article. “We discovered that a specific ribosomal RNA nucleotide acts as a recognition sensor that monitors a tRNA base pair, critical for accurate decoding and that tunes uniform binding of all tRNAs to the ribosome. When this base pair is disrupted, translation fidelity is lost, and the ribosome is no longer able to recognize the incorrect tRNA-mRNA base pairing. Collectively, these structures revealed a previously unappreciated way in which the ribosome senses the integrity of tRNAs and their interaction with mRNA to ensure accurate gene expression.”

Congratulations, Ha An!