Benjamin P. Tu
The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center
Ben Tu uses both yeast and mammalian cells to study complex processes that are linked to the internal workings of cells. He has discovered new connections between metabolism and cell growth regulation, findings that ultimately may have implications for treating diseases including cancer and neurodegeneration.
“The influence and importance of the metabolic state on cell regulation are far too often overlooked and we aim to decipher these very complex mechanisms,” said Dr. Tu, professor of biochemistry. “Our research has begun to show that small molecule metabolites play underappreciated roles in the regulation of growth and survival of cells.”
Autophagy, a survival state in which cells consume parts of themselves, degrading proteins and organelles, has long fascinated him. He calls it one of the most fundamental, if less understood, cellular processes. Through his recent research funded by the Welch Foundation, Dr. Tu has pinpointed several amino acids that are preferentially maintained by autophagy.
His lab has also been able to trace in detail the pathways by which autophagy maintains these amino acids within the cells. Such understanding, in turn, opens up the possibility of investigating mechanisms utilized by cancer cells to persist or survive chemotherapy and radiation.
Recently, Dr. Tu identified chromatin methylation as important to the production of the amino acid cysteine – results that suggest methylation might be as important to metabolism as it is to gene expression.