Imperial College London

European accolade for structural biologist exploring complex molecular machines


Professor Xiaodong Zhang

Professor Xiaodong Zhang has been elected to membership of the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO).

Zhang is Professor of Macromolecular Structure and Function from the Department of Medicine at Imperial, where her work focuses on unravelling the mechanisms of molecular machines using a range of techniques including X-ray crystallography and cryo-electron microscopy.

Only 58 researchers in the life sciences were newly elected to membership of EMBO, 50 from across Europe and eight associate members from China, Japan, Lithuania, Singapore and the United States.

Professor Zhang’s research currently focuses on three key: DNA damage and repair, gene regulation in bacteria and structure and mechanism of a protein called p97.

Each day in every human cell, DNA is damaged by exposure to toxic chemicals, UV light and other radiation.

Cells have developed sophisticated systems to detect and repair this damage in a highly controlled and coordinated fashion. Professor Zhang and her colleagues are trying to understand some of the key events in this process.

DNA damage and repair are linked to cancer and ageing so a better knowledge of this fundamental process will help researchers understand and eventually intervene in these key areas.

Breaking down bacterial defences

In a recent study, Professor Zhang and her associates found a protein called Sigma54 that controls bacterial defences.

Bacteria react to stressful situations - such as coming under attack from antibiotics - with a range of defence mechanisms.

Professor Zhang’s research showed Sigma54 holds bacteria’s defences back until they encounter stress, at which point the protein rearranges its structure to trigger the defences.

The range of defences that Sigma54 controls is very broad so scientists hope this work may aid in the development of new antibiotics.

Protein potential

In a joint project with Professor Paul Freemont, Professor Zhang also looks at p97, an abundant protein in human cells which has been reported to be involved in a myriad of cellular activities.

Mutations in p97 have been linked to various diseases including Paget's disease of the bone, frontotemporal dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases.

This research project involves studying the structures and functions of p97, which could help in the understanding of the disease mechanisms and potential development of new treatments.

Research has also shown that compounds that inhibit the p97 protein can stem the growth of cancer cells in the lab and so could have a role in cancer treatments in the future.

Reacting to her election to membership of EMBO, Professor Zhang said, “I am delighted and honoured to join such a prestigious organisation. To have my work recognised in this way by other outstanding life scientists is a great privilege.”

New EMBO members are elected annually by the existing membership in recognition of their contributions to scientific excellence.

EMBO members and associate members currently number more than 1,700 of the best researchers in Europe and around the world.

Election to EMBO membership is recognition of research excellence and the outstanding achievements made by a life scientist. A total of 84 EMBO members and associate members have been awarded Nobel Prizes.


Sarah Marcus

Sarah Marcus
Communications and Public Affairs

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