I am striving to make the world better with new proteins

University of Kansas faculty are striving to advance knowledge, interpret our world, solve problems, spark innovation, create beauty and catalyze imagination through their research, scholarship and creative activity. Through the “I Am Striving” series, we’ll learn more about what inspires KU researchers, as well as the goals and impact of their work. 

Q&A with Joanna Slusky, associate professor of molecular biosciences

Explain your research as you would explain it to someone outside your field, such as your grandparents. 

What we're trying to do is use biology’s language to make solutions for human problems. What do I mean by that? I mean, nature uses proteins to do all kinds of chemical functions that biology needs to keep life surviving. We want to just be able to make new proteins, and have those proteins solve our human problems, like antibiotic resistance or environmental pollution. We can use those new proteins to plug antibiotic resistance pumps so that bacteria can't push antibiotics out of the cell, or make a new protein that could be an enzyme, and that could degrade pollutants.  

What does your research look like? What methods do you use? 

Our lab is extremely multidisciplinary, we use computational methods, and we use experimental methods, some people in the lab have more of a microbiology background or an organic chemistry background, or a biophysics background. Using these different backgrounds we model evolutionary pathways, computationally design new proteins, and developing machine learning models to evaluate proteins. We also synthesize proteins or make bacteria synthesize proteins. Then we purify those proteins and characterize those proteins, to see how those proteins actually work with bacterial cells. So it's a whole range of different techniques that we can put together to really deeply understand how proteins can be more helpful for solving problems.  

What inspires your research? Why are you passionate about this work? 

I’m really passionate about two things. Number one, making the world better. Having a lab here at KU is a platform for making things that can improve the world better.  I’m driven to do that every day. And the rest of my lab is as well. 

Second, I'm also really passionate about teaching and so one of the great things about having a laboratory is that I am really in the weeds with my students and constantly trying to help them have better tools for understanding nature and chemistry and what we can do. 

How does your research directly impact your field, society, Kansas and the world? 

The hope is that over time, we'll be able to refine these methods and we'll be able to come up with whole new ways to do design proteins that can then filter down the line towards companies actually being able to make something useful. But the proteins that come out of my lab, they're not going to be directly useful tomorrow. But if we can come up with better technology for plugs for antibiotic pumps, then we could get some grip on this antibiotic resistance problem and maybe be able to solve it. If we can properly evaluate computationally designed enzymes, so that we can make and design new enzymes, those might be able to degrade oil spills. New enzyme design methods would really change the whole field of synthesis as we know it, from pharmaceutical synthesis to the kinds of chemical manufacturing that would be used for paint or textiles, or pretty much anything. So there are a lot of long range applications, which we're hoping to access by just coming up with whole new ways of doing things. 

What is a recent study/example of work you’d like to share? 

Something that I'm super excited about is this project we have to improve enzyme design. I'm in this field of protein design, we want to make new proteins. And one of the hardest things to do in protein design is design new enzymes and to do so where using a protein that is not previously an enzyme. We took a machine learning approach to distinguish between two proteins. One of them is an enzyme, and one of them isn't. And we've just been making tremendous strides with being able to now tell the difference. Not only can we tell the difference, but through the process of learning how to tell the difference, we've been uncovering some exciting, fundamental truths about what makes an enzyme actually work in a broader sense. 

What do you hope are some of the outcomes of your research and work? 

I really hope that there will be more molecular solutions to life's problems— problems that I don't even know about yet. If we can come up with better ways to design new proteins, and use them to change chemistry in one area, or change biology in another area, then these could be tools for all kinds of things. Developing these tools now I hope, will affect the world and fix the world for a long time to come.