Vinayak Agarwal calls them “alphabets in the language of life” – the small organic molecules, called marine natural products, that inhabit the oceans of the world. They’re what he researches as an assistant professor in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry and the School of Biological Sciences.
“The Agarwal laboratory seeks to decipher this language of life,” he explains.
Agarwal and the scientists in his group will have more opportunities to conduct those studies and teach his methods to undergraduate students thanks to his new honor serving as a 2021 Cottrell Scholar through the Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA).
"Unlocking Marine Eukaryotic Natural Product Biosynthetic Schemes in Research and Education" wins Agarwal a $100,000 prize. He is one of 25 2021 Cottrell Scholars.
Through the Cottrell Scholar program, RCSA champions the very best early career teacher-scholars in chemistry, physics, and astronomy by providing significant discretionary awards for research. The program honors and helps to develop outstanding teacher-scholars who are recognized by their scientific communities for the quality and innovation of their research programs and their potential for academic leadership.
Recipients are chosen through a rigorous peer-review process of applications from top research universities, degree-granting research institutes, and primarily undergraduate institutions in the United States and Canada. Their award proposals incorporate both science education and research.
As their careers advance, Cottrell Scholars become eligible to compete for several additional levels of funding to further their academic careers. They meet each July at the annual Cottrell Scholar Conference to network, exchange ideas, and develop collaborative projects to tackle pressing educational issues with potential national impact.
“In these challenging times, more than ever, science needs young faculty with fresh ideas and a commitment to student success,” says RCSA President & CEO Daniel Linzer. “The 2021 class is a diverse, dedicated, and welcome addition to the Cottrell Scholar community.”
For Agarwal, that means more time and funding to unlock the mysteries of the ocean’s natural products, which he sees at the forefront of fighting the global epidemic of antibiotic resistant pathogens, and keeping the inventory of clinically applicable pharmaceuticals stocked up. As his lab site also points out, “some natural products are also potent human toxins and pollutants, and we need to understand how these toxins are produced to minimize our environmental exposure to them.”
The marine environment, particularly the seabed, is a site for intense biotic competition and presents numerous cases of intricate inter-organismal interactions, Agarwal explains. “It is also the site where some of the most chemically complex natural products are constructed using biological catalysts — gene encoded enzymes,” he adds. “The Cottrell Scholars award will enable the Agarwal laboratory to continue their work on interrogating the biogenetic routes that marine eukaryotic organisms such as marine sponges and seagrasses use to construct natural product.”
These eukaryotic organisms have traditionally missed widespread attention from geneticists and biochemists, as sequencing and mining their large and complex genomes weren’t compatible with contemporary technologies. “Using rationalized biosynthetic schemes that guide the mining of eukaryotic transcriptomes, the Agarwal laboratory is developing new workflows that can sidestep the eukaryotic genetic complexity and enable the discovery of genes and enzymes that construct complex natural products in marine eukaryotic metabolomes,” he says.
The Agarwal laboratory is also bringing the microbial ingenuity in natural product biosynthesis to the classroom, combining it with the latest technological tools for discovery. Agarwal’s Cottrell award will allow him to develop “new curricula in which undergraduates isolate new bacterial strains from marine matrices and pair the discovery of these new-to-science bacteria with cutting-edge mass spectrometry technologies to inventory which novel natural products are made by these bacteria. These efforts will enrich the exposure of the undergraduate community to research directions that have been out of reach of traditional curricula with the aim to enhance their retention in postgraduate STEM education and STEM-based career development.”
Agarwal joins four other College of Sciences researchers named as Cottrell Scholars: David Collard, School of Chemistry and Biochemistry, 1994 (the first class of Cottrell Scholars); and three School of Physics scientists: Michael Schatz, 1999; Tamara Bogdanovic, 2016; and Elisabetta Matsumoto, 2020. School of Chemistry and Biochemistry alumnus Chad Risko was also named a Cottrell Scholar in 2018.
“Since the first class of Cottrell Scholars in 1994, this community has provided leadership and guidance that has made a big impact on science, on students, and across academia,” shares RCSA Senior Program Director Silvia Ronco.