Student logs time at Washington University as part of binational consortium

Biology Professor Joseph Jez (right) and Suchismita Roy work in Jez's lab.

Biology Professor Joseph Jez (right) and Suchismita Roy work in Jez’s lab. (Photo: Myra Lopez)

“It’s a lot like trying to make rock candy out of sugar,” said Joseph Jez, of the research that goes on in the cold room in his lab.

For two weeks this past August (2015), Suchismita Roy, a graduate student from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, India, filled hundreds of trays with the goal of seeing whether a protein would crystallize in any of its wells. The method is called protein crystallography.

Jez, PhD, professor of biology in Arts & Sciences, hosted Roy in his lab as part of the Indo-U.S. Advanced Bioenergy Consortium for Second Generation Biofuels (IUABC), a joint binational center led by JNU, the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay (IITB), and Washington University.

Jez’s lab crystallizes proteins in order to figure out how these little biological machines work. Roy is using Jez’s lab to work on her thesis project, which involves plant biology and plant growth.

“She’s picking up the tool from us and hopefully she takes that and runs with it,” he said.

Roy’s goal is to grow crystals out of the plant protein she’s working on to figure out what the protein looks like. Her home lab at JNU is researching these proteins to see if they can be employed to help maintain plant biomass under environmental stress.

“If we can get the structure it becomes the starting point, to be able to generate a hypothesis about how that protein works,” he said. “The outcome can be as simple as that.”

Roy really enjoyed her time in Jez’s lab, calling the experience “awesome.”

“He’s very interesting and always excited. I hope my research works out,” she said.

Two weeks isn’t enough time to do all the work Roy needs, but it’s a great start, according to Jez.

“If we can get the protein made while she’s here we can start doing crystallization trials,” he said.

Roy will continue to work on her plant biology side of the project back at JNU, while Jez’s lab will carry the protein crystallography work forward. Jez hopes he can get data back in time to share it with her when he visits JNU in December.

Although Jez cautions that if they never get the crystals Roy can’t do her project. No one can predict how a protein will crystalize or if it will crystalize. He said the randomness of the process is really frustrating for people who come from a traditional science background.

“One of the biggest frustrations is you can have a great idea but if you can never get protein to behave in a way that gets you results, you’re dead in the water,” he said. “There’s a high chance of failure for what she’s doing, but she seems to know that. That’s good that she’s aware of that.”

However, Jez is confident that at least one of the two proteins she’s working on will behave better than the other.

“She’s nicely maximizing her odds,” he added.

Spoiler Alert:

Not long after Roy returned to her lab at JNU, she learned that she had her first crystals. They grew shortly after she departed from Washington University.

“Now we’ll try to improve them and see if they diffract,” Jez said.

The goal of the IUABC is to increase biomass yield in plants and algae, enabling downstream commercial development for cost-effective, efficient and environmentally sustainable production of advanced biofuels.

The IUABC strengthens institutional partnerships between the three lead organizations, all of which are members of the McDonnell International Scholars Academy through which they collaborate on research, develop joint educational opportunities, and host joint workshops and symposia.

The IUABC consortium includes 14 principal investigators from seven Indian research organizations and one U.S. research university, and substantial investments from two Indian industrial partners.

IUABC partners include:

  • Washington University in St. Louis
  • Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India
  • Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, Mumbai, India
  • International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), New Delhi, India
  • Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, India
  • University of Delhi, South Campus (UDSC), New Delhi, India
  • National Facility for Marine Cyanobacteria (NFMC), Tiruchirappalli, India
  • National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bangalore, India
  • Bioseed Research India, Hyderabad, India
  • Reliance Industries Limited, Mumbai, India

I-CARES Media Contact: Myra Lopez,