February 2011

Ruma V. Banerjee and Stephen W. Ragsdale: deciphering sulfur and carbon metabolism

Ruma V. Banerjee and Stephen W. Ragsdale are professors in the department of biochemistry at the University of Michigan and partners in life as well. Below, we look at their research and how they balance life and the lab.

Scientists are used to expecting the unexpected in their research, but sometimes the surprising discoveries occur outside the petri dish.

Such is the case of Ruma V. Banerjee and Stephen W. Ragsdale, both professors in the department of biochemistry at the University of Michigan.

In the halls of Medical Science Research Building III, which houses the biochemistry department, Banerjee and Ragsdale are independent researchers who tackle intriguing biological problems. Banerjee, the Vincent Massey collegiate professor of biological chemistry, focuses on mammalian sulfur metabolism and its reliance on enzymes utilizing the cobalt-containing vitamin B12, while Ragsdale studies the microbial metabolism of one-carbon compounds, which also relies heavily on metalloenzymes.

However, their connection goes beyond cobalt, nickel and iron. Banerjee and Ragsdale are partners in life as well as in the department; they have been married for nearly 20 years and share the successes and challenges that come with a life in research that intertwines with life outside the lab.

Chemistry in action

Their initial encounter occurred in 1989, when Stephen Ragsdale was a young assistant professor who had just established his own lab at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In graduate school, he became fascinated by microbes and the vast and unusual types of chemistry they could carry out and he decided to take up research in acetogenesis, the metabolic process used by certain anaerobic bacteria to create energy by converting carbon sources into acetate.

In particular, Ragsdale was examining the enzymes involved in the Wood-Ljungdahl pathway, which fixes organic carbon from carbon dioxide with the aid of coenzyme A. (Considering he did his graduate and postdoctoral studies with Lars G. Ljungdahl and Harlan Wood, respectively, Ragsdale certainly had the credentials to tackle this pathway.)

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