Biophysicist Ankur Jain will join the Whitehead Institute as its newest member this coming September. Jain will also be appointed an assistant professor in the MIT Department of Biology. In his research, he will use a combination of innovative approaches to investigate the biology of RNA aggregation.
While it is understood that protein aggregation is a key factor in certain neurological diseases, relatively little is known about RNA aggregation, its underlying biology, and the role it plays in disease. A class of neurological disorders called repeat expansion diseases, which includes amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and fragile X syndrome, are marked by stretches of DNA nucleotide repeats in their cognate disease gene. The presence of repeats is associated with clumps of RNA aggregates and RNA binding proteins that undergo phase transition to form an “RNA gel” in the nucleus. At the Whitehead Institute, Jain will continue his investigation into the properties of these RNA aggregates in order to learn how they form, what properties they possess, and how they could be disrupted to restore normal cellular processes. Jain will use nuclear speckles — areas in the nucleus associated with pre-mRNA splicing — as a model for physiological RNA-protein granules.
His lab will also investigate the role of RNA-DNA interactions in chromatin organization — the complex, dynamic structure of DNA and proteins in the nucleus. There are instances of nucleotide repeats in our genome that occur even in the absence of repeat expansion disease genes. Repetitive DNA sequences at the end of our chromosomes interact with proteins to form our telomeres, structures critical for chromosome maintenance. Jain will study the RNA transcribed from the telomeric sequences in order to understand their structure and if they undergo phase separation similar to the one seen in repeat expansion diseases. In addition, Jain will build on his specialized expertise in quantitative light microscopy to drive development of new imaging-based technologies.
“Ankur brings an approach grounded in a combination of soft-matter physics and cell biology to help pioneer an important — potentially ground-breaking — way of investigating and understanding RNA aggregation and RNA-DNA interaction,” says David C. Page, Whitehead Institute director and member. “His insights are exciting, and the intellectual and scientific creativity he brings to his research is energizing.”
Jain is currently completing a postdoc with Ronald Vale at University of California at San Francisco. He earned a PhD in biophysics and computational biology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2013, and a bachelor’s degree (with honors) in biotechnology and biochemical engineering from Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur in 2007. He holds a National Institutes of Health Pathway to Independence Award (also known as a K99 Award), and has been a lead author on peer-reviewed studies in the journals Nature and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“Understanding the biology of RNA aggregation and phase separation has the potential to crack open long-time mysteries in cell biology,” Jain explains. “I am grateful for the chance to pursue my investigations in the intellectually rich and scientifically fruitful environment that Whitehead Institute and MIT have to offer.”