Orange Alert

Atanu Acharya Wins NIH Award to Study the Biochemistry of Bacterial Membrane Proteins and Light-Sensitive Proteins

Atanu Acharya portrait.

Posted on: Oct. 16, 2023

by Emily Halnon

Atanu Acharya, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, has been awarded a Maximizing Investigators' Research Award (MIRA) from the National Institutes of Health for his projects: Investigation of Long-Range Charge Transfer and Excited State Processes in Biochemical Systems. Acharya joined Syracuse University in 2022 to focus on biochemical molecular environments. The MIRA grant will fund his research over the next five years.

In this pair of research projects, Acharya will examine the biochemistry of light-sensitive proteins and metal-breathing marine bacteria which are essentially bacteria that “breathe” metal like humans breathe oxygen. Whereas humans breathe air and intake oxygen, cells perform respiration, a series of reactions that move charges and electrons from one place to another. Some marine bacteria do not need oxygen to complete their respiration at all. Instead, they use external metal to transport the electrons. Since the metal cannot be breathed in like oxygen, the bacteria grow a conducting wire to reach the metal.

Biochemistry involves many molecules, ions and biomolecules that gather together to create an optimal environment. Acharya will probe the smallest components of this process to better understand these processes.

In the first project, Acharya will build computational and mathematical models that can mimic the smallest scale of the biomolecules’ environment so researchers can better understand it and be in a position to improve upon the process.

Specifically, zooming into the atomic level will enable him to investigate how the molecules in the outer membrane of metal-breathing bacteria drive the respiratory process, which could help improve things like bioremediation and wastewater treatment technology. If researchers can discover how to leverage the unique breathing mechanism of these bacteria, it could be used to remove a wide variety of chemicals, including toxic metal oxides and hydroxides, that pollute the environment and threaten public health.

In the second project, Acharya will explore the mechanism of chemical reactions that can be controlled by lights in biochemical environments by developing computational models and tools. Light-sensitive proteins help regulate numerous cellular processes. If researchers can uncover the processes that take place when proteins absorb light, they could use that mechanism to control the chemistry of a cell and eventually influence processes like photosynthesis, phototaxis and specific enzyme activity. Other functions of these light-sensitive proteins are still unknown.