Claremont, Calif. (July 30, 2018)—The National Science Foundation has awarded one of its most prestigious grants for early-career faculty to Associate Professor of Chemistry Aaron Leconte. The five-year $400,000 Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) grant recognizes Leconte’s exceptional work as both a scientist and a teacher and supports his current research into proteins that can accurately copy chemically modified forms of DNA. Leconte teaches in the W.M. Keck Science Department of Pitzer, Claremont McKenna and Scripps Colleges.
His project, “Development of DNA polymerases capable of high fidelity modified DNA synthesis,” will give students hands-on research experience and training, which Leconte describes as “the most important part of my job.”
“Science is about so much more than reading a textbook,” Leconte said. “It’s about having ideas, generating your own questions, being creative and ultimately making something useful for the world.”
Leconte’s group will be making something useful by developing DNA polymerases—proteins that can synthesize DNA molecules, in this case, chemically modified DNA molecules. Ultimately, these proteins could help develop potentially life-saving DNA-based biotechnological tools that will improve the diagnosis and treatment of disease, among a ton of other applications.
DNA encodes genetic information for pretty much every living thing on earth. Scientists have identified proteins in nature that can copy DNA, giving them the ability to write, read, amplify and edit information in a test tube. Because of this ability, Leconte says “DNA is probably the most useful molecule in existence for biotechnology.”
However, when DNA is introduced into a biological environment, like human blood, it can be destroyed by proteins in the same way a body’s immune system attacks a virus. So chemists have engineered chemically modified versions of DNA that won’t get wiped out as easily. But then a new problem arises: while scientists have recently developed new DNA polymerases to replicate modified DNA, they frequently make mistakes during copying, limiting their use.
That’s the issue Leconte and his group of student research assistants will be tackling with this grant.
“We have been trying to generate versions of polymerases that can copy the chemically modified form of DNA without making mistakes,” Leconte said.
Leconte has been working on this problem since he joined the Keck Science Department in 2012. Last year, he and seven students published a paper describing the first polymerase that was able to copy chemically modified DNA without creating a slew of errors in the code.
“The grant is really about trying to push that research further,” Leconte said. “It’s about developing a better understanding of how errors are made and using that knowledge to build enzymes that are better than anything that’s out there.”
The NSF CAREER grant supports not only the research but two related educational projects: Leconte plans to incorporate this biotech research into a classroom setting for upper-division students, and he will be working with students to create educational videos that will not only unlock some of the secrets of chemistry but show what it means to be a scientist.
“In college, you get to be an active participant in science,” Leconte said. “You’re not learning science just to learn it, you’re learning it to apply it to important problems that can really shape the world around you.”
According to NSF, its Faculty Early Career Development Program supports junior faculty “who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.” Over the six years Leconte has taught at the Keck Science Department, he has engaged more than 30 students in the day-to-day work of his research lab. Pitzer alumnus Alfredo “Freddy” Valencia ’14, one of Leconte’s former research assistants, is now earning his PhD in chemical biology at Harvard University. Andrea Gochi ’14 is in medical school at UC Riverside. And Marya Ornelas ’20, a rising junior at Pitzer, co-authored a paper published in Biochemistry on the Leconte group’s new approach to protein engineering.
Leconte, who says he majored in chemistry at Carleton College because “chemistry never got boring,” shares with his students the contagious excitement of scientific exploration.
“In some ways, it’s the purest form of learning,” he said. “You come up with ideas then you test them with your own two hands.”Associate Professor of Chemistry Aaron Leconte joined the W.M. Keck Science Department in 2012. Two years later, he was awarded a Cottrell College Science Award from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA). In 2016, he was one of 26 scientists to receive RCSA’s Cottrell Scholar award, which recognizes top early-career academic scientists and supports both research and teaching. Leconte earned his BA in chemistry from Carleton College and his PhD in chemical biology from the Scripps Research Institute. As an NIH postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, he received the Ruth L. Kirchstein National Research Service Award.