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Peng Chen, PHYSICAL/BIOINORGANIC CHEMIST, Cornell University, New York

Peng Chen

"It's always exciting to lead a direction rather than just follow one."

What He's Doing

Peng Chen didn't select just one scientific field to study, he picked two. With backgrounds in both bioinorganic chemistry, which looks at metals, and single molecule chemistry, which focuses on the interactions of individual molecules, Chen was in the right place to use both bioinorganic and single molecule chemistry to tackle scientific questions.

Through his efforts, Chen created a new, cutting edge field of science. "We are at the interface between two research fields that essentially had no overlap and we're trying to put them together," says Chen. "It's always exciting to lead a direction rather than just follow one." Single molecule studies, for example, are widely used in other fields, but few groups in the bioinorganic chemistry community were applying them to their work.

Creating this overlap allows researchers to approach scientific problems in new ways, hopefully yielding new answers. "The problems were already there, but there weren't easy ways to address them. Now we're introducing a new approach so we can answer the unsolved challenges," says Chen.

A small town a few hours to the north of Shanghai, China
Cornell University, Ithaca, New York
Spicy food and sushi
My hobbies are reading and traveling. My favorite reads are novels about martial arts masters.
James Bond, Indiana get the idea. I enjoy movies for which I can leave out my brain—which I exercise regularly for work.
Places that combine natural beauty and ancient culture.

His Findings

Currently, Chen is using his novel approach to zero in on molecules called metallochaperones. Metallochaperones are small proteins that act as taxis, transporting metal ions inside cells. Metal ions like iron and copper are very important in the body's daily functions. Iron, for example, is necessary for transporting oxygen in the body, while copper helps maintain a healthy immune system.

But these metals can also be toxic inside the body if they're left floating around or they build up inside the cell. They must be protected and delivered exactly where they are supposed to go. That's where metallochaperones do their job.

Metallochaperones pick up a metal ion and deliver it to another protein. The interactions during this delivery are extremely challenging to study because the proteins are constantly shifting and changing shape. It's an especially difficult task when there are hundreds of thousands of proteins interacting inside cells at any given time.

Looking specifically at copper chaperones, Chen has dissected the problem down to a simpler level. His single molecule methods allow him to observe an individual chaperone and its target protein in real time, one event at a time, and obtain unique measurements.

Everything in our bodies involves proteins and a closer look at metallochaperones will help researchers better understand how proteins interact in the body and how, through these interactions, important bodily processes take place.

As a professor at Cornell University, Chen also encourages his students to follow their passions to new horizons. "There are amazing findings beyond what you would expect," he says. "Be fearless and explore your interests."

Meet a Chemist


This page last reviewed on November 1, 2011