The International Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) has presented one of its 2015 Young Investigator Grants to Cheemeng Tan, an assistant professor in the UC Davis Department of Biomedical Engineering. The project, a collaboration between Tan and Michael Nash — a professor in the Department of Biophysics and Molecular Materials at Ludwig-Maximilians University, in Munich, Germany — is titled “Unraveling Dynamical Coupling Between Gene Expression and Cellulosome Assembly.”

Cheemeng Tan, assistant professor in the UC Davis Department of Biomedical Engineering

Cheemeng Tan, assistant professor in the UC Davis Department of Biomedical Engineering

Applicants endured a rigorous, yearlong selection procedure during a global competition that resulted in only 10 Young Investigator teams receiving approval, from a field of more than 1,000 proposals. Tan and Nash will share $250,000 per year for the three-year project, which integrates synthetic biology, microfluidics and single-molecule imaging for the study of cellulosome assembly.

Cellulosomes are protein networks used by anaerobic bacteria to digest cellulosic biomass. The protein networks consist of subunits that are held together by receptor-ligand pairs, some of which have similar affinities to the same binding sites. It currently remains unclear how cells modulate the assembly of cellulosomes, because studies are hampered by a lack of tools to manipulate genetic compounds of native cellulosome-producing bacteria. In order to resolve these issues, studies of cellulosome assembly require nanoscale measurement methods.

“We’ll approach these challenges from the perspective of an engineer using state-of-the-art quantitative tools,” Tan explained. “Essentially, we’ll reconstruct cellular processes using synthetic compounds, while tracking the processes at the single-molecule level.”

After completing his undergraduate work at the National University of Singapore, Tan earned his a master’s degree in high-performance computation for engineered systems from Singapore-MIT Alliance. He came to the United States in 2005, to begin his doctoral research at Duke University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering. He soon evolved into a hybrid computational and microbial biologist, and completed his PhD in biomedical engineering in 2010. He then spent close to three years as a postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon University’s Lane Center, and joined the UC Davis College of Engineering in August 2013.

His research interests include the engineering of artificial cellular systems, novel strategies of antibiotic treatment, and the underlying mechanisms of cellular heterogeneity. His Artificial Cellular Systems Group focuses on the engineering of synthetic biological systems for therapeutic treatment, where the work proceeds in two fundamental directions. In order to improve the control of synthetic cellular systems, the functioning mechanisms in natural cells are harnessed, to control the dynamics of synthetic cells and organisms. At the same time, heterogeneous cellular populations are analyzed, to determine how they respond to drug treatment.

The ultimate goal is to merge these two research paths, in order to create novel treatment strategies.

The Human Frontier Science Program, based in Strasbourg, France, was founded in 1989 as a result of feasibility studies conducted by Japanese scientists under the auspices of the Japanese Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology. The HFSP grew during the subsequent years, becoming an organization sustained by Japan, the United States, the European Union and 12 other nations. This research funding program supports innovative, interdisciplinary and intercontinental research projects in the life sciences, with an emphasis on the support of young teams, and the development of training opportunities for the brightest young researchers in some of the world’s best laboratories.