How are the metre-long strands of DNA packaged into the tiny spaces of the nuclei in cells? And what is the role of the telomeres, the structures that cap the ends of chromosomes, in cancer development and ageing? For structural biologist and biochemist Prof Daniela Rhodes FRS, Director of the NTU Institute of Structural Biology, answers to these questions can be found in the structures of the molecules and enzymes involved in chromosome biology.
Prof Daniela Rhodes, who has joint appointments as professor at the School of Biological Sciences and the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, became internationally recognised for crystallising the nucleosome core (the central unit in DNA packaging in chromosomes) – a major scientific breakthrough in the 1970s – and for her structural work on chromatin, telomeres (the ends of chromosomes) and transcription factors. She is also one of the pioneers in the field of four-stranded DNA structures called G-quadruplexes that have recently been shown to play important regulatory roles in cells.
Not just the embodiment of the spirit of discovery, she is such a star back in her native region in Italy that a nearby observatory named one of the minor planets it had discovered after her (80008DanielaRhodes).
Prof Rhodes joined NTU in 2011 to further her work on the structure and function of telomerase, an enzyme crucial in the repair of telomeres that allows chromosomes and cells to endlessly replicate – a hallmark of cancer. She hopes to achieve her research goals with the help of the state-of-the-art Cryo-Electron Microscopy Laboratory set up at the School of Biological Sciences.
"It is our hope that with the powerful instruments available in the Cryo-Electron Microscopy Laboratory, we can make new discoveries. Only by understanding the inner workings of proteins and enzymes related to ageing and cancer, can we start to develop solutions to treat such conditions," she says.
Another pull factor for Prof Rhodes in joining NTU was the pool of world-renowned molecular and structural biologists in Singapore and at NTU – a key aspect for her, since she grew up in an environment that thrived on scientific discussions.
Starting as a research assistant and graduate student in the lab of 1982 Chemistry Nobel laureate Aaron Klug, followed by appointments as tenured Group Leader and Senior Scientist, Prof Rhodes spent most of her scientific life at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK, a world-famous scientific institution with nine Nobel prizes shared amongst 13 scientists in its rows.
Throughout her career, Prof Rhodes has been fortunate to have met, interacted with and learnt from some of the most brilliant scientific minds of our time, such as Nobel laureates and other world-famous scientists whose laboratories were just down the hallway from hers.
Shaped by this experience, she strives to engage and challenge her students to become independent thinkers.
“One of the great things about doing research is that you get to spend all of your day with young, clever people,” she says. “In my group, I’m trying to help these talents to be curious, think for themselves and become passionate about science.”
Prof Rhodes’ professional experience includes serving as Director of Studies at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology from 2003 to 2006 and chairing the European Molecular Biology Organisation Council from 2009 to 2011. She has been a Visiting Professor at “La Sapienza” in Rome and at the Rockefeller University in New York. Her research has been published in more than 100 journal papers and book chapters that have been cited more than 10,000 times.
Heading an inter-disciplinary network of eight teams, Prof Rhodes recently won S$23.8 million under the Academic Research Fund programme of Singapore’s Ministry of Education that will help to make further important discoveries in the area of telomere and genome research.
Prof Rhodes is a Fellow of the Royal Society in the UK and a Member of various international associations including Academia Europaea. In 2011, her birthplace in Italy awarded her the region’s Ponte d’Oro (Golden Bridge) Prize for her scientific achievements.