Jeff Morgan is drawn to answering open questions, blazing his own trail where there hasn’t been a lot of prior research. After all, “most discoveries start with something unexpected, and then somebody who is willing, maybe dumb enough, to work it out,” he said. “Sometimes you find really cool things that change how we think.”
Morgan upended dogma in biology when he was still in graduate school. He showed that some introns, stretches of noncoding DNA that fall away when the genes are expressed and previously thought insignificant, did play a role in signaling pathways involved in growth.
He developed a passion for RNA biology working with David Bartel at MIT. Now he’s doing postdoctoral research at the University of Utah with Jared Rutter to understand how cells sense and respond to metabolic changes in the environment, in the cell’s identity during development, and in disease. It’s a marriage of RNA biology and the study of metabolism.
While proteins are typically thought to be better at sensing metabolite levels, Morgan is betting on RNA to find small molecules and metabolites with a remarkable affinity and specificity. Proteins have a wider landscape of chemical groups and amino acids, but he suspects RNA, with only its four bases, may prove to interact with metabolites in meaningful ways.
These connections matter in disease. Cancer, for one, is marked by metabolic differences. Shining a light on connections between metabolic machinery and the rest of the cell could illuminate what makes a healthy cell different from a malignant cell.
“Most discoveries start with something unexpected, and then somebody who is willing, maybe dumb enough, to work it out.”
Other scientists have looked at these relationships in bacteria, but Morgan wants to find them in organisms higher up the ladder — including people.
“It’s a daunting topic for the field,” he asked. “But I think we’ll be able to do that.”
— Elizabeth Cooney