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Modifying the Genetic Blueprint

Assistant professor Jia Sheng has won an NSF CAREER award to study the structures and functions of RNA modifications. Photo by Brian Busher.

ALBANY, N.Y. (June 11, 2019) – An assistant professor of chemistry is one of just 16 faculty SUNY-wide to earn the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) esteemed CAREER award.

Jia Sheng, who is affiliated with the RNA Institute in addition to the Department of Chemistry, received $600,000 to study the structures and functions of natural ribonucleic acid (RNA) modifications and develop molecular tools for gene regulation. He will begin the project in July and continue through 2024.

Sheng explains that nucleotides are what make up RNAs and contain the crucial "blueprint" of genetic information used by cells to make proteins. In order to achieve the structural and functional diversity, nature uses over 150 chemical modifications to “decorate” RNAs. Many of these modifications play critical roles in a variety of biological processes and human diseases, including cancers and virus infections. In addition, they are considered as chemical fossils left from the original stages of life and can offer evolutionary clues.

Therefore, studying the natural modifications of RNA is important for the further elucidation of their biological functions, the development of new therapeutics, and the exploration in the origins of life. With this award, Sheng will develop new molecular tools to incorporate and manipulate these modified nucleotides in RNA with high precision, helping the scientific community better understand the role of RNA.

“I am very proud and grateful to receive this award from NSF, which sets up a high standard and a new start to my research group in pursuing our long-term goal of understanding nature’s strategies to diversify the structures and functions of RNA,” said Sheng.

Sheng joins Mariya Zheleva, an assistant professor of computer science, as the two UAlbany faculty to receive a CAREER award this year. Zheleva’s project is working to establish a scientific and technological framework for automated spectrum measurement in support of shared-spectrum access.

The NSF CAREER award is designed to support outstanding junior faculty in developing their careers as researchers and educators who advance teaching, learning and the dissemination of knowledge. The 17 SUNY recipients come from four campuses – Albany, Binghamton, Stony Brook and Buffalo.

“Drs. Jia Sheng and Mariya Zheleva are two of our brilliant and very diligent junior faculty members destined to be leaders in their field of scholarship,” said Satyendra Kumar, Associate Vice President for Research. “It has been a pleasure to work with such delightful colleagues. The NSF-CAREER award is their first major success and should now allow them to get to the business of conducting research and mentoring doctoral students for the next five years.”

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