February 2011

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

The structure of cystathionineb-synthase, one of two major generators of the gaseous signaling molecule, H2S, which was recently solved in a collaboration involving the Banerjee laboratory.

The only problem, Banerjee discovered, was that RPI did not have a botany program, so she switched her studies to chemistry, one of the school’s strengths. At first, she considered switching schools, but she quickly became enamored with medicinal chemistry and synthesis reactions and decided to stay.

Meanwhile, Ragsdale had reinvigorated his science interests through personal readings and eventually decided to return to university full time. Not long after, he bumped into renowned scientist Marion M. Bradford at a soda machine.

As it happens, Bradford (inventor of the Bradford protein assay) and Ragsdale shared the same hometown and knew each other from church, so Ragsdale mentioned that he needed work to help pay for school and wondered if Bradford had any jobs in his lab for an undergraduate.

“He said sure and told me to stop on by,” remembers Ragsdale.

Ragsdale took up a project studying the acrosome reaction in sperm, and immediately, the concept of research – using deductive skills and reasoning to solve a daunting biological problem – struck a chord. “It was like solving a puzzle,” Ragsdale says. “It only took one day for me to get hooked.”

Balancing life and lab

More than two decades later, Banerjee and Ragsdale still are hooked, both on each other and on their research in metabolism and enzymology, though they certainly have had to maneuver through the delicate balancing act of family and research.

Their first significant challenge was finding a suitable destination once Banerjee had finished her postdoc and was ready to start her independent career. The main goal was to find a place together, for, despite the relative proximity of Milwaukee and Ann Arbor, the constant travel between the cities was a hassle.

A gas channel between the active sites of CO dehydrogenase (C) and acetyl-CoA synthase (A). Ragsdale is studying this enzyme complex, which is responsible for reductive conversion of CO2 to acetyl-CoA. Revised from Doukov, T. I., et al. (2008). Biochem. 47, 3474-3483.

“We also made the conscious decision that we would not work in the same lab,” Banerjee says. “Steve was a little ahead of me in his career, so when I started my independent work, I did not want to be seen as riding his coattails or risk working in his shadow.”

They eventually found a suitable joint destination at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and both took positions there in 1991. “Initially, it was a compromise destination,” Banerjee says, “but we quickly felt right at home, and the time we spent there was extremely positive.”

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