This illustration depicts cell membranes, which contain transporter proteins that are the focus of Dr. Gabriele Meloni’s research. A National Science Foundation grant is helping Meloni and fellow researchers explore how transition metals — such as iron, nickel, cobalt or zinc — are recognized and transported by the proteins.

Dr. Gabriele Meloni, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at The University of Texas at Dallas, recently received a Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to further his work on understanding how cells recognize and selectively transport certain trace chemical elements across their membranes.

“We are studying a large class of membrane proteins that work as ion pumps and are present in all forms of life, from bacteria to humans,” said Meloni, who joined the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics in 2015. “Specifically, we are looking at how transition metals — such as iron, nickel, cobalt or zinc — are recognized and transported by these proteins.”

The general structure, reactivity and metal-binding properties of transmembrane transporter proteins, as well as their translocation mechanisms, are still not well understood. Meloni’s research, aided by the five-year, $677,929 NSF grant, will contribute to this poorly explored area of biochemistry, providing new molecular-level insights into how metal transport processes occur in living organisms.

Gabriele Meloni.

“We are studying a large class of membrane proteins that work as ion pumps and are present in all forms of life, from bacteria to humans.”

Dr. Gabriele Meloni, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry in the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics

Transporter proteins within cell membranes are responsible for moving ions and a variety of small molecules in and out of cells for several purposes. These include ion, nutrient and metabolic product uptake or extrusion to control their cellular levels and homeostasis, a process necessary for all living organisms.

Transition metals, such as iron, copper and zinc, are necessary elements for the chemistry of life. Transporter proteins are key to tightly controlling the concentrations of these metals to ensure they don’t reach toxic levels. Any abnormality in these processes can cause cellular toxicity.

About CAREER Awards

The Faculty Early Career Development Program supports early-career faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research and excellent education. The highly selective program is the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious award for early-career faculty who are considered likely to become leaders in their fields.

Meloni said gaining better understanding of the basic principles that control these processes could lay the foundation to develop applications in biotechnology, medicine and agriculture.

Another component of the grant is the development of an educational program focused on promoting student engagement in inorganic biochemistry.

Called “ChemistReality,” Meloni’s proposal includes an online video series that would include a lab-based “reality show” to be shared with primarily undergraduate institutions (PUI) and high school students. The project’s aim is to promote awareness, interest and societal knowledge in inorganic biochemistry.

“We particularly want to target students who are underrepresented in the sciences,” Meloni said. “The idea is to create a chemistry reality show that features undergraduate and graduate students paired together and doing experimental work, which we then share with high school and PUI students online.”