Montana State University

MSU microbiologist receives NIH fellowship to continue pioneering work

July 16, 2014 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

MSU microbiologist Ryan Jackson has received a $100,000 fellowship from the National Institutes of Health. The image behind him shows the X-ray crystal structure of a CRISPR complex. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).    High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN – Ryan Jackson has spent the past two years investigating how bacteria fend off invading viruses.

Now the Montana State University microbiologist has received a $100,000 two-year fellowship from the National Institutes of Health to continue his work in this hot new field of science, work that has already attracted international attention for him and his mentor, Blake Wiedenheft.

“NIH’s investment in Ryan is a major stepping stone for his early career in science and a huge endorsement for research at Montana State University,” Wiedenheft said. “These sorts of awards are rare at any institution, and I think that this is something that the MSU campus should celebrate.”

Wiedenheft hired Jackson almost two years ago as a postdoctoral researcher in his laboratory in MSU’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology.  Since then, the two have made discoveries that they have shared at international conferences and in prestigious scientific journals.  In February, Wiedenheft presented their work on the E. coli immune system at the 2014 Biophysical Society meeting.  Out of 150 nominations, his was the first of seven presentations to be featured during the society’s “New and Notable Symposium.”

“I find it stunning how investigators continue to develop methods to study increasingly complex systems at very high resolution,” said Robert Nakamoto of the University of Virginia and chair of the symposium.

Jackson, Wiedenheft and their collaborators have also written a paper that has been accepted for publication in a major scientific journal, Jackson said. In fact, Jackson said, they were so busy finishing up that paper that he barely had time to celebrate the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award he received from the NIH. Kirschstein was a pathologist and the first woman to direct an NIH Institute, the National Institute of General Medical Science.

 “We high-fived and went back to work,” Jackson said.

Jackson earned his bachelor’s degree in biology at Utah State University and said as a kid he always liked watching birds and ants. He could easily see himself counting bears in the backcountry. But curiosity about gene expression, structural biology, and the opportunity to conduct undergraduate research turned his attention to cellular biology. After receiving his bachelor’s degree, he continued to pursue his passion for life science research at Utah State University, completing his Ph.D. in biochemistry in 2012.

These days, he uses his expertise in X-ray crystallography to determine the molecular structure of bacterial ribonucleo protein complexes that ward off viruses.  By analyzing X-ray diffraction patterns from crystalline proteins, Jackson is able to determine the location of each atom in a biological machine. The tiny machines that Jackson studies are part of an immune system inside bacteria that identifies and destroys invading DNA.

Bacteria and viruses are often lumped together as enemy agents, but they are not the same, Jackson said. Viruses are much smaller than bacteria and can reproduce only by hijacking the cellular replication machinery. Viruses infect bacteria by injecting their DNA through the cell wall. If the genes on the viral DNA are made into proteins, the virus multiplies.

Researchers have discovered that one-celled bacteria have surprisingly sophisticated adaptive immune systems called CRISPR, Jackson said. The CRISPR immune system attacks viral DNA, cutting it to pieces before the virus can replicate. Understanding how these machines work has led to their use in medicine, and now components of these bacterial immune systems are being repurposed to help find cures for genetic diseases.

Jackson said he is passionate about research and higher education. Noting that his career goals include teaching at a university while pursuing research in his own laboratory, he said the Ruth L. Kirschstein NRSA Award provides funds for him to continue to reveal how CRISPR immune systems in bacteria work, while obtaining essential training in Wiedenheft’s lab for a successful career in science.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu