EVANSTON, Ill. --- Erik J. Sontheimer, associate professor of biochemistry, molecular biology and cell biology at Northwestern University, has been named the Irving M. Klotz Research Professor in Chemistry.
A member of Northwestern's Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University and the Center for Genetic Medicine, Sontheimer studies the functions of RNA molecules with particular emphasis on two critically important processes known as RNA interference (RNAi) and messenger RNA (mRNA) splicing. RNA molecules are unique in that they can serve as carriers of genetic information (like DNA) and as active constituents of cellular machineries (like proteins).
Although most cellular RNAs function as single-stranded molecules, double-stranded RNA can arise under certain circumstances, most of which are threatening to the cell. If the cell detects double-stranded RNA from a virus, it uses this RNAi mechanism to selectively inhibit the expression of viral genes, thereby counteracting the infection.
Using biochemical approaches to characterize the function of the RNAi machinery, Sontheimer's laboratory's research has yielded fundamental insights into the biochemical mechanism of RNAi and the pathway by which the RNAi machinery assembles on a double-stranded RNA.
Sontheimer also studies gene splicing and the role of the protein ubiquitin. His work has led to a new research avenue in the area of mRNA splicing.
Research by Sontheimer and others in RNAi and mRNA has shown that the RNAi response can protect cells from pathogens. The ability to selectively silence specific genes by introducing double-stranded RNA into a cell has revolutionized biomedical and agricultural research, and this approach holds considerable promise as a therapeutic tool. Understanding how RNAi works at the molecular level will enable use of RNAi in the research laboratory, in crops and in human patients.
Sontheimer's research is supported by the March of Dimes, the American Cancer Society and the National Institutes of Health.
Sontheimer has received some of the highest awards for new scientists, including the Burroughs Wellcome New Investigator Award in 2000, a National Science Foundation CAREER Award in 2001 and an American Cancer Society Scholar Award in 2004.
He is a member of the RNA Society and will co-organize the 2007 meeting of the RNA Society.