Award

Chen recognized for protein ubiquitination and innate immune signaling work

The UT Southwestern scientist won the 2015 ASBMB–Merck Award
Umesh D. Wankhade
By Umesh D. Wankhade
March 01, 2015

Zhijian “James” Chen, professor of molecular biology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, won the 2015 American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology-Merck Award, which recognizes outstanding contributions to research in biochemistry and molecular biology.

Chen received this award for his work on the mechanisms of cell signaling, inflammation and innate immunity. In the mid-1990s, his group unraveled an unanticipated function of ubiquitin as an activator of protein kinases in cytokine signaling. Until that point, conventional thinking dictated that ubiquitin only had one molecular function – to tag other proteins for destruction by the cell’s proteasome.

chen-web.jpg "I am thrilled and humbled to see my name next to my scientific idols who received the ASBMB-Merck award before me. It is a great honor to receive this award on behalf of a wonderful team of dedicated and talented students and postdoctoral fellows at UT Southwestern who made the discoveries that are recognized by the award." — ZHIJIAN "JAMES" CHEN

Chen also found that mitochondria contribute to the body’s immune response. For example, his group identified MAVS, a mitochondrial protein critical for immune defense against many RNA viruses, including influenza, West Nile and hepatitis C. Chen and colleagues recently discovered a new pathway, called the cGAS pathway, that activates the immune system in response to microbial and host DNA.

“By establishing in vitro assays to purify, clone and characterize new components of the NF-kB signaling pathway, Chen was the first to demonstrate that protein ubiquitination could have a regulatory role in signal transduction through protein kinase activation, distinct from the traditional role of ubiquitin in targeting protein degradation by the proteasome,” said Eric Olson of UT-Southwestern in his nomination letter about Chen. Olson added, “Chen’s most recent discovery of the cGAS pathway is especially thrilling and has important implications for numerous diseases.”

Steven McKnight, a professor at UT–Southwestern and the ASBMB’s president, said: “The Merck Award from the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology is one of its most coveted prizes. Past winners constitute a ‘who’s who’ in the field of biomedical research.”

Chen earned his undergraduate degree in biology from Fujian Normal University in China. He earned a Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Buffalo. After spending the early years of his career in industry, he joined UT-Southwestern in 1997.

Chen previously won the Robert A. Welch Foundation Norman Hackerman Award in Chemical Research in 2005, the National Academy of Sciences Award in Molecular Biology in 2012 and election to the National Academy of Sciences in 2014.

Umesh D. Wankhade Umesh D. Wankhade is a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Health's diabetes, endocrinology and obesity branch.
Umesh D. Wankhade
Umesh D. Wankhade

Umesh D. Wankhade is a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Health's diabetes, endocrinology and obesity branch.

Join the ASBMB Today mailing list

Sign up to get updates on articles, interviews and events.

Latest in People

People highlights or most popular articles

Glycobiology society honors; NAI inducts Batzer; inspiring Latinx scientists
Member News

Glycobiology society honors; NAI inducts Batzer; inspiring Latinx scientists

September 28, 2020

Honors, promotions, milestones and more. Find out what's going on in the lives of ASBMB members.

Herbert Tabor 1918 – 2020
Retrospective

Herbert Tabor 1918 – 2020

September 24, 2020

F. Peter Guengerich remembers the contributions of the longtime editor of the Journal of Biological Chemistry who died in August.

ASBMB welcomes new members
Member News

ASBMB welcomes new members

September 21, 2020

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular biology welcomed more than 60 new members in April.

It all comes down to where we place our bets
Interview

It all comes down to where we place our bets

September 18, 2020

Mark Harpel works in a research unit at GlaxoSmithKline that helps choose the most promising targets for new drug development.

Understanding the impact of Type 1 diabetes susceptibility genes
Research Spotlight

Understanding the impact of Type 1 diabetes susceptibility genes

September 17, 2020

Starting in eighth grade, a series of mentors who saw something special in Sharifa Love–Rutledge helped her stay on the path to being a researcher — and becoming a mentor to others.

Cell biology, microbiology societies present awards
Member News

Cell biology, microbiology societies present awards

September 14, 2020

Honorees include ASBMB members Joann Trejo, James Olzmann, Steven Farber, Sue Wickner and Bernard Moss.