Sarah L. Keller, a professor of chemistry and adjunct professor of physics at the University of Washington, has been named the winner of the 2010 Avanti Young Investigator Award in Lipid Research for her innovative and cutting-edge studies on membrane lipids.
As part of this award, established by American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s Lipid Research Division, Keller will present a lecture, titled “Dynamic Domains in Lipid Membranes near a Miscibility Critical Point,” at 11:45 a.m. Monday, April 26, at the 2010 annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif.
Keller’s interdisciplinary research has been instrumental in revealing how lipid composition affects the physical parameters of cell membranes and how that can lead to changes in membrane protein activity and aggregation. Some of her early studies directly inspired models of protein aggregation within membranes and provided an experimental basis for the theory of membrane lateral pressure.
Keller’s interest in this field began with her graduate education at Princeton University, where she studied the interactions between ion channels and lipid membranes. Working with Sol M. Gruner, Keller showed that the conductance state of alamethicin channels changes dramatically when the channels are present in dioleoylphosphatidylethanolamine compared with dioleoylphosphatidylcholine membranes. Those results had far-reaching implications, for at that time there was little evidence for the idea that lipid composition could affect membrane protein activity in the absence of charged lipids, a large change in membrane thickness, a transition to the gel state or direct binding between lipids and proteins.
Since arriving at the University of Washington in 2000, after postdoctoral positions at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Stanford University, Keller has combined her in-depth knowledge of chemistry and physics to tackle even more daring and ambitious projects related to membrane lipids.
In just a few years, Keller already has provided numerous insights into the formation and diffusion of lipid domains and how lipid composition can alter the activities of lipid domains and membrane proteins in both an intra- and inter-leaflet manner.
“Sarah is fearless in her choice of projects — the tougher the better,” noted Keller’s postdoctoral adviser, Joseph Zasadzinski, a professor in the department of chemical engineering and engineering materials at UCSB. “She instills a magic sense of confidence in her graduate students that it will all work out in the end. She lets them take credit for the successes, and she will take the blame for the failures. And she does it calmly and with grace.”
She presented the first results demonstrating how micron-scale domain formation in membranes varied with cholesterol content and temperature. Later, she showed that lipid domains can be induced from one membrane leaflet to another— a study that counteracted the prevailing hypothesis— and that alterations in the composition of one leaflet could annihilate all domains in the membrane, even when one leaflet would have made domains on its own. Given the fact that the molecular details of how lipids in one leaflet of a membrane could affect lipids in the opposing leaflet were unknown, those exciting findings have opened a brand new area of study.
Many of her colleagues have noted that Keller’s thorough analyses and phase diagrams of lipid domains with respect to the surrounding membrane have become the gold standard in the field of membrane research.
They also point out that Keller’s excellence extends beyond the laboratory. “Her student evaluations are off the charts, and she has won every teaching award on offer at UW,” noted Michael H. Gelb, Harry and Catherine Jaynne Boand endowed professor of chemistry at the University of Washington. “I am confident that, as a result of her inspiring teaching, many of these students will pursue advanced and creative research in the future.”
He added, “I have already told her that I want to sit in on her course and see how she does it.”
Angela Hopp (firstname.lastname@example.org) is managing editor for special projects at ASBMB. Nick Zagorski (email@example.com) is a science writer at ASBMB.