Assistant Professor Jayakrishnan (JK) Nandakumar joined the department in September. His research interest is telomerase, the enzyme that adds nucleotides to the ends of chromosomes. which tend to shorten during each cell division and need to be replenished for continued cell division of stem cells. Telomerase is a target for cancer therapies since it is also critical for the division of cancer cells.
JK uses biochemical and cell biology techniques, and X-ray crystallographic tools to explore protein-nucleic acid complexes found at chromosome ends. “These two forms of molecules - very different entities - always come together at several important junctures in biology.”
Access of complexes including telomerase to the ends of chromosomes is limited because cells want to avoid illicit end-fusion events at these locations. Therefore, it has been a biological mystery as to how telomerase reaches the end of the chromosome and extends it. JK has identified the protein surface, which binds to telomerase and brings it to chromosome ends. The research was published in Nature in 2012.
Scientific explanations for what seemed to be mysterious phenomena always fascinated JK. He grew up in Calcutta, a city, he explains, with a great respect for science. His favorite childhood TV show, Quest, featured a panel of scientists who challenged students to explain experiments demonstrated on the show. There were many questions that the students couldn’t answer. The scientists used reasoning and observation of the phenomena to explain what “at the outset looked like magic,” he says. JK wanted to explain all these observations.
He earned a BS in Chemistry with an interest in organic molecules. His completed a Ph.D. at Cornell University in Chemical Biology, and then did postdoctoral work at University of Colorado-Boulder with Thomas Cech, a world leader in RNA biochemistry and winner of the 1989 Nobel in Chemistry.
JK is now collaborating with investigators at the UM. Ivan Malliard, a hematopoietic stem cells expert in the Life Sciences Institute, and geneticist Katy Keegan in the medical school are interested in the broad physiological implications of the research in JK’s laboratory.
At Michigan, such collaborations seem very natural, he says. Even before he arrived on campus people reached out to him.
JK’s National Institutes of Health (NIH) K99/R00 award, in addition to the start up grant from UM, is providing funding for his initial years at Michigan. He currently works with graduate students Andrew Polzin, Sherilyn Grill and Damian Gatica. Valerie Tesmer and Kamlesh Bisht are two post docs who will be joining the group in January, 2014.