Jeff Coller, a groundbreaking genetics researcher whose work has led to fundamental shifts in the understanding of gene expression and to the creation of new therapeutics for treating genetic disorders, has joined Johns Hopkins University as the Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of RNA Biology and Therapeutics. He will hold appointments in the Department of Biology at the Krieger School and in the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics at the School of Medicine.
Coller’s work focuses on how RNA interacts with the ribosomes and how it degrades. In nearly all living organisms, DNA in the cell nucleus emits strands of RNA that tell the ribosomes what proteins to produce and in what quantity, allowing cells—and therefore the organism—to function. But as long as that RNA signal survives inside the cell, the ribosomes will continue to express the proteins it orders up. As a result, the timed and precise destruction of RNA is also an essential part of cellular function.
“Jeff Coller is an exceptionally accomplished molecular biologist who will be a major collaborator with other researchers at Johns Hopkins,” says Provost Sunil Kumar. “We are excited to welcome him to Baltimore and look forward to him exploring new directions at Hopkins as a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor.”
Coller, who comes to Johns Hopkins from Case Western Reserve University, discovered that when it comes to messenger RNA, or mRNA, the information that dictates how long the signal survives is actually embedded in the sequence of the mRNA itself—like a genetic version of a message that self-destructs.
The discovery has led to more thorough understandings of the process of gene expression and the types of cellular messages that are important. For example, certain messages might degrade at slower rates, allowing the ribosomes to continue producing proteins that are needed in greater quantities. Other cellular messages might degrade immediately once the need is fulfilled. Coller likens it to the difference between reading a newspaper and re-reading a novel.
He’s spun out his findings into a number of side projects and new avenues for research, including one project that examines transfer RNA, or tRNA. That tRNA research has also led Coller to venture into therapeutic applications of his research. His science and research are the basis of the biotech startup Tevard Biosciences, which is developing RNA therapeutics that can mitigate the effects of Dravet syndrome, a genetic form of childhood epilepsy that is linked to severe seizures, developmental delays, and shorter life spans.
After receiving his PhD in cell and molecular biology at the University of Wisconsin and completing his postdoctoral training at the University of Arizona, Coller joined the faculty at Case Western Reserve University in 2005.
Coller joins an interdisciplinary cohort of scholars working to address major world problems and teach the next generation. The Bloomberg Distinguished Professors program is backed by a gift from Michael R. Bloomberg, a Johns Hopkins alumnus, and founder of Bloomberg LP and Bloomberg Philanthropies.