Dr. Amit Tzur: Finding the Humor in Good Science

Cell biologist and BINA faculty member Dr. Amit Tzur has never been shy about declaring his faith in the redemptive power of basic science, and he has a healthy sense of humor. An expert in cellular growth and proliferation, Tzur recently declared that his most recent research – related to the post-transcriptional modifications of proteins – may help redeem mankind from “shame” generated by one of the most successful scientific endeavors of all time.

“At the end of the Human Genome Project, we learned that humans have only about 25 thousand genes, which was downright embarrassing,” Tzur says. “I mean, are we really only four times more complex than bacteria?”

Tzur, who joined BINA in 2011 after completing post-doctoral research at Harvard Medical School, has spent many years studying how the cell cycle is affected by gene expression and protein dynamics. Recently, he has turned his attention to PTM – the post-translational modifications through which specific proteins may appear in slightly different forms.

“Using in vivo, time-lapse fluorescent microscopy, we’re watching the dynamic changes that occur when a sub-population of proteins is altered by acetylation, phosphorylation or ubiquination,” he says, referring to common chemical reactions that affect protein structure. “These changes – which occur very quickly – can be rare, but they affect function. This means that our 25,000 genes produce a far larger number of functional proteins to drive cellular processes.”

Working together with BINA colleague Dr. Doron Gerber – another recruited “returning” scientist – Tzur is examining post-translational modification on a systems level, based on a high-throughput, microfluidic platform.

“Doron’s lab manufactures flexible, transparent polymer chips etched with thousands of micron-sized channels, each one of which houses a particular experiment,” Tzur explains, adding that his study focuses on revealing the changes that occur when enzymes meet proteins. “These ‘meetings’ occur in a tiny amount of liquid taken from the cell cytoplasm – making our results resemble what happens in live cells – and are revealed by fluorescent signals that indicate when molecular binding has occurred.  Essentially, it gives a ‘bird’s eye view’ of post-translational modifications.”

Tzur says that this technique can reveal a “PTM signature” of specific tissue types, and can also be used to characterize the difference between normal and pathological tissues.

“Going beyond gene-expression analysis, this technique gives us a molecular ‘mug-shot’ of the subtle, post-translational changes that may tip the cell toward cancer or other diseases,” he says. “Eventually, this might be used as a diagnostic tool, or as a screening technology for preventative medicine.”

And, says Tzur, the price is right. “PTM is typically studied using expensive, commercially-sold arrays,” he says. “In our technique, we can insert any combination of proteins into microfluidic chambers, and analyze the results at just one percent of the cost of equivalent technology.” Tzur and Gerber’s technology was recently described in the journal Molecular Cell Proteomics.

Along with Gerber, Tzur credits his success to his students’ hard work in the lab – where alongside the study of gene expression, self-expression is definitely encouraged.

“Last year we produced a parody music video, describing how difficult it can be for hardworking graduate students to get a day off,” says Tzur, who appears in the video playing guitar. “Scientific research can be off-the-charts demanding, but if we can laugh together, we won’t go too crazy!”

Originally published by the Bar-Ilan Institute for Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials.
For more on Dr. Tzur click here.