Gierasch Wins Mildred Cohn Award in Biological Chemistry

Lila Gierasch

Distinguished Professor Lila Gierasch of biochemistry and molecular biology and chemistry, has been selected to receive the 2014 Mildred Cohn Award for her work in protein folding, structure and function from the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB). The award recognizes scientists who have made substantial advances in biological chemistry through innovative physical methods. A formal presentation is planned on April 28 at the society’s annual meeting in San Diego, where Gierasch will present her award lecture.

She says, “I am thrilled to be chosen to receive the Mildred Cohn Award from ASBMB. She was one of my heroes; her contributions reflect her deep physical understanding, her experimental boldness and her willingness to deploy any biophysical approach that would answer the key questions underlying a biological system. My laboratory’s contributions reflect the energy, creativity, enthusiasm, hard work and dedication of the wonderful students and postdocs I have worked with through the years. I thank them! In addition, thanks to many collaborators who worked with us to tackle daunting problems, who elevated our science and who shared the pleasures of garnering meaningful results.”

Gierasch’s early research into the relationship between amino acid sequence and peptide and protein structure led to establishing fundamental principles for reverse-turn conformation features, and to several new biophysical methods in common use for characterizing protein turns, such as nuclear magnetic resonance, quantitative nuclear Overhauser effects, circular dichroism and computational modeling. This formed the basis of her later research with gonadotropin-releasing hormone analogs and using peptide fragments to examine protein recognition motifs. In recent years, Gierasch has extensively studied protein folding in the cell and how molecular chaperones facilitate the successful adoption of a protein’s three-dimensional structure.

With her collaborator, Evan Powers, she is developing and testing a computational model of cellular protein homeostasis in E. coli, called FoldEco, which enables a systems-level examination of how protein ‘health’ is maintained by chaperone and degradation networks.

Commenting on her achievements, colleague Jeffrey Kelly of the Scripps Research Institute said, “Lila is a rigorous biophysical chemist, but unlike most chemists who avoid complexity and prefer reductionist type studies, Lila’s whole career has been focused on applying chemistry and biophysical methods
to the study of peptides and their role in biology as well as protein folding and trafficking in vivo. Her work is insightful, revealing and is well ahead of its time.”

Ning Zheng of the University of Washington added, “To me, Lila is not only an outstanding scientist who has made milestone and unique contributions to her own research field, but also a phenomenal mentor who never ceases to inspire and help many of her mentees to launch success in their careers. Her achievements as a scholar, a leader and a mentor are extraordinary at every level.”

Gierasch also recently received a plaque as a new fellow of the Biophysical Society at the Society annual meeting in San Francisco for her “pioneering contributions to the understanding of the physical forces underlying protein folding.” Gierasch earned her A.B. in chemistry in 1970 from Mount Holyoke College and a Ph.D. in biophysics from Harvard University in 1975.