Dr. Nehalkumar (Nehal) Thakor’s research into the regulation of gene expression has implications for many fields, from biofuel production to cancer treatment.
Thakor, a microbiologist, brings his expertise in synthetic biology to the University of Lethbridge as a Campus Alberta Innovation Program (CAIP) Chair of Synthetic Biology and RNA-based Systems. He was appointed to the seven-year position in September.
“Government’s commitment to the Campus Alberta Innovation Program helps attract leading edge professors to our province. Dr. Thakor’s work has the potential to make significant discoveries in energy and the environment that will benefit not only Alberta but people around the world,” says Don Scott, Minister of Innovation and Advanced Education. “We welcome him to the University of Lethbridge."
Synthetic biology involves the engineering of biological systems to produce new outcomes. One arm of Thakor’s research program explores the uses of gene expression regulation in the field of sustainable energy.
“Mankind is being challenged right now because we are running out of our fossil fuel supply, and we need an alternative energy source,” says Thakor, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “My general objective is to study RNA-based system biology, particularly in the area of energy and environment.”
RNA (ribonucleic acid) is a molecule that, along with DNA and proteins, is essential for all known life forms. RNA is involved in gene expression and regulation and Thakor investigates the use of RNA to adjust gene expression in microbes to consume plant waste and convert it into glucose, a core ingredient of biofuel. This type of biofuel is more sustainable because it doesn’t compete for land used to grow food. Ultimately, Thakor’s research could also have implications for the production of antibiotics and biodegradable plastics.
Thakor’s other area of research concentrates on the regulation of gene expression during oncogenesis, or the formation of cancer. He wants to uncover why cancer cells survive after being exposed to stress that kills regular cells.
"By learning more about how protein translation occurs in cancer cells, it may provide us with insights into how we can create more effective cancer treatments,” he says.
Dr. Lesley Brown, interim vice-president (research), sees a bright future for RNA-based research at the U of L. Thakor joins a strong team, including Dr. Hans Joachim Wieden, who was named the iCORE (Innovates Centre of Research Excellence) Strategic Chair of Bioengineering by Alberta Innovates-Technology Futures (AITF).
“The number of problems that can be addressed through synthetic biology and biomolecular engineering will only continue to expand,” says Brown. “Dr. Thakor is a welcome addition to our team of researchers in synthetic biology.”
Before coming to the U of L, Thakor was a senior scientist at BioVectra, a supplier to the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, in Prince Edward Island. Originally from India, Thakor obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in microbiology from Sardar Patel University in Gujarat, India. He did his doctoral work at Sardar Patel and at the University of Munster in Germany. Thakor also worked as a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Alberta and at the Apoptosis Research Centre in Ottawa.
Thakor is the fourth and final CAIP chair allocated to the U of L as part of the provincial government’s commitment to provide 16 research chairs to Alberta’s four comprehensive universities. The CAIP Chairs program is designed to bring new research leaders to Alberta to work in four strategic areas, including energy and environment, food and nutrition, neuroscience/prions, and water. At the U of L, the government is contributing $1 million for four Chairs over the course of seven years, for a total investment of $7 million.