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Jacob (Jake) Morgan ’08 Wins National Science Foundation Fellowship

Jacob (Jake) Morgan ’08 majored in neuroscience at CC and currently is a first-year biophysics graduate student at the University of Virginia, where he is studying the molecular mechanism by which cellulose synthesis in bacteria is regulated. Morgan was recently awarded a National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship.

“Cellulose is typically recognized in the context of plants, but many bacteria actually make and secrete cellulose in order to stabilize biofilms, multicellular aggregates that they form in order to attach to surfaces and protect themselves from threats such as antibiotics and our immune system. Complications due to the establishment of bacterial biofilms in the lungs is a major cause of mortality for cystic fibrosis patients. In my lab at UVA, we used X-ray diffraction to determine the atomic structure of the enzyme responsible for synthesizing cellulose in bacteria,” Morgan says. The work was recently published in Nature.

The enzyme is regulated by cyclic-di-GMP, a small molecule that appears to be found exclusively in bacteria. Because cyclic-di-GMP is exclusive to bacteria, it's effectors are considered to be good targets for modulation by drugs where the goal is to harm the bacteria without harming people. His task as a graduate student, and the subject of his NSF fellowship, is now to determine the molecular motions that take place in the enzyme when it binds cyclic-di-GMP, and to figure out how these movements lead to activation of the enzyme. An understanding of this process could help to reveal ways to destabilize or prevent the formation of bacterial biofilms.

His favorite classes at Colorado College were organic chemistry and biochemistry, and he cites Neena Grover and Peggy Daugherty as being his most influential professors. It was his research project with them, conducted the year after he graduated, that drew him to where he is now.  He worked on a project with two high school students and their teacher to purify a specific protein from E. coli and then used it to synthesize an RNA sequence that one of Grover’s students could use for her research. 

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