Jack Taunton, CHEMIST and CELL BIOLOGIST, San Francisco
"I never took a formal cell biology class, but I've been surrounded by talented cell biologists who taught me most of what I know."
What He's Doing
Trained as a chemist, Jack Taunton got hooked on cell biology and now blends the two. He is using chemical tools—molecules he can custom-make in his lab—to figure out how cells do all the amazing things they do.
One key goal is to create chemical stop signs: molecules that block cancer, parasitic infections, and other diseases that make people miserable.
University of California, San Francisco
ALTERNATIVE CAREER CHOICES
BEST WAY TO SPEND A WEEKEND
Playing and listening to music; reading the latest chemistry and cell biology literature; designing small molecules on the backs of discarded envelopes
Sonic Youth, Béla BartÓk, Ornette Coleman, Jimi Hendrix, Charles Mingus, J.S. Bach, Tom Waits, The Beatles, John Coltrane, Lee Morgan
To do that, Taunton makes molecules of all kinds and shapes. This allows him to see what happens to cell function when the molecule is present. Is it better? Is it worse? Does it fix a problem?
In one particular case, Taunton added a molecule he made to cancer cells in a lab dish. He was amazed to watch the tumor cells change shape, look more like normal cells, and even stop dividing.
Taunton made a specially shaped molecule that knocks out a type of protein movement in cells. This molecule interferes with the normal teamwork between the endoplasmic reticulum and ribosomes. These cellular organelles perform key steps in the process of making a protein and getting it to its proper worksite in the cell.
Next, Taunton figured out a way to attach a tag to his blocking molecule. He used an approach that uses light as a detection scheme. In this work, Taunton chemically attached a light-activatable version of the amino acid leucine to his blocking molecule. When the blocking molecule found its target in the cell, the molecular combo lights up and Taunton can capture the target. That's an important step in designing a good drug to interfere selectively with cell function (for instance, in cancer cells or bacteria).