Chemical Engineer Allie Obermeyer Honored with NSF CAREER Award

Obermeyer is focused on improving human health by developing protein- and polymer-based materials for biomedical applications.

Mar 11 2019 | By Holly Evarts | Photo Credit: Jeffrey Schifman | Video Credit: Jane Nisselson

Allie Obermeyer: Engineering Proteins

The National Science Foundation has awarded Allie Obermeyer, assistant professor of chemical engineering, with the NSF CAREER Award, its most prestigious honor given to early-career faculty. Obermeyer, whose research bridges chemistry, biology, and engineering, is focused on improving human health by developing protein- and polymer-based materials for biomedical applications. The five-year $600,000 NSF grant will support her project, “Complex Coacervation in Cells.”

“Proteins are an incredible class of polymers,” Obermeyer says. “The precise sequence of amino acid monomers is rapidly biosynthesized and encodes the necessary information to transform the simple polymer chain into a folded functional biomacromolecule. Protein biopolymers have many amazing properties, including spectacular strength, the ability to dynamically assemble and disassemble, and they can function as reliable machines and catalysts.”

Obermeyer’s lab capitalizes on the diverse structure and function found in native proteins by engineering complementary functionality into new protein-based materials. The group makes genetic or synthetic modifications to gain responsive control of protein assembly and activity. One of the ways they do this is to use interactions with charged polymers as a method for encapsulating and stabilizing proteins.

When the conditions are right, the charged polymer and protein can “de-mix” to create a new liquid phase in a process known as complex coacervation. This new liquid phase can be used to stabilize the protein component, mimic the cellular environment, or enhance protein activity. In fact, in the past decade it has become apparent that cells use a similar strategy to organize cellular contents into structures termed membrane-less organelles. As in a salad dressing of oil and vinegar, the phase-separated membrane-less organelle and the surrounding cellular contents do not mix together.

Obermeyer’s NSF project is focused on using complex coacervation to create artificial membrane-less organelles in E.coli bacteria. “Our central hypothesis,” she says, “is that electrostatic interactions can be used to drive the liquid-liquid phase separation of proteins with other biological molecules to mimic the formation of natural membrane-less organelles.”

If she is successful in engineering the formation of artificial organelles in a range of organisms her project will be a major advance in synthetic biology.

“We’ll be able to better study, in a systematic way, the factors that influence complex coacervation of proteins and to develop new protein-based materials with a broad range of applications, ranging from drug delivery and protein purification to metabolic engineering,” Obermeyer observes. “Receiving this NSF grant is both a great honor and a huge boost to our research efforts to address challenges in protein engineering, biotechnology, and synthetic biology.”