Graduate student selected for Oak Ridge National Laboratory research program

December 4, 2023 - by Kim Delker

photo: Jacob Belchak
Jacob Belchak

Jacob Belchak, a Ph.D. student at the Center for Biomedical Engineering at The University of New Mexico, has been accepted to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory Neutron Scattering Graduate Research Program.

He is studying with Gabriel Lopez, a professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering; Jacob is also being mentored by Rex Hjelm of the New Mexico Consortium.

At Oak Ridge, Belchak will be funded for an internship to research the interactions of nucleic acids with chimeric intrinsically disordered proteins (IDPs). For his UNM dissertation, he is studying IDPs, which are ubiquitous, naturally occurring proteins that can act as nucleic acid (NA) chaperones, facilitate the assembly of membraneless organelles, and work as packaging agents for NAs in viral nucleocapsids.

Under funding from the National Science Foundation, Lopez and his team, in collaboration with David Peabody, professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at UNM, have successfully engineered an IDP formed from an elastin-like domain fused to a chaperone-like domain derived from the core protein of the Hepatitis C virus. The construct acts as a smart nucleic acid chaperone (SNAC) that contains the two biological functions of interest: core protein catalytic activity and the liquid-liquid phase separation (coacervation) of the elastin-like protein. SNACs enable technologies for rapid isolation and detection of viral NAs, the need for which was clearly demonstrated during the recent pandemic. NA chaperoning is a process that facilitates sterically and kinetically unfavored molecular processes that likely involve multiple complex steps. At Oak Ridge, Belchak will apply neutron and x-ray scattering techniques along with other biophysical characterizations to understand the processes leading to NA chaperoning.