Three UC Berkeley faculty to receive NIH Innovator Award

Three UC Berkeley scientists have been recognized as innovators in their fields through new research grants awarded by the National Institutes of Health.

Michi Taga, assistant professor in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, along with Nicholas Ingolia and Roberto Zoncu, both assistant professors in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, will receive New Innovator awards designed to stimulate highly innovative research and support promising new investigators.

Nicholas Ingolia

They are among 50 New Innovator awardees announced today (Monday, Oct. 6) as part of the NIH High Risk-High Reward program. Each recipient will receive $1.5 million each over the next five years.

The grant for Ingolia will go toward his research into how cells switch genes on and off by controlling the fate of the messenger RNA – the conveyors of genetic instructions for creating proteins – after they are copied out of the genome. He will use a technique he developed, called ribosome profiling, that lets scientists move from studying which RNAs are present in the cell to look directly at which are being used to make proteins.

Michi Taga

Taga said she plans to use the grant to develop methods to selectively kill disease-causing bacteria. This targeted approach could eventually lead to alternatives to antibiotics, which can wipe out large swaths of bacteria, including beneficial ones. The overuse of antibiotics has become a significant public health problem, leading to an increase of drug-resistant strains of bacteria.

Roberto Zoncu

Zoncu‘s work focuses on how nutrients are sensed within cells. The grant will help him investigate how the lysosome, often viewed as the cell’s “trash can,” relays nutrient status to the cell and links the cell’s growth to changing internal and external conditions. The work could shed light on how humans grow and age, and why people become susceptible to diseases as diverse as cancer, diabetes and neurodegeneration.

“Supporting innovative investigators with the potential to transform scientific fields is a critical element of our mission,”’ said NIH Director Dr. Francis S. Collins, in a press statement. “This program allows researchers to propose highly creative research projects across a broad range of biomedical and behavioral research areas that involve inherent risk but have the potential to lead to dramatic breakthroughs.”

The NIH High Risk-High Reward program supports grants in four categories. In addition to the New Innovator awards, 35 recipients of the Pioneer, Transformative Research and Early Independence awards were announced today.