Emma Chory Awarded Hypothesis Fund Seed Grant

6/11/24 Pratt School of Engineering

Chory will use robotic platforms to explore how and why proteins make evolutionary decisions

Emma Chory
Emma Chory Awarded Hypothesis Fund Seed Grant

Emma Chory, an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Duke University, was awarded a seed grant from the Hypothesis Fund. Unlike traditional grants, the Hypothesis Fund works with accomplished scientists, called Scouts, to identify and support high-reward, early-stage research to support.

“With her research project, ‘Probing the Principles of Evolutionary Decision-making: Counter-Evolution of Protein Interactions via PRANCE,’ Dr. Chory is asking profound questions about protein evolution, with a bold new approach to answering them, and the potential for transformative results,” said David Sanford, CEO of the Hypothesis Fund.

Chory specializes in directed evolution, a process that mimics the natural selection that occurs in nature when an organism adapts and changes based on environmental pressure. If these changes are positive, then the organism will be more likely to survive, and these changes will then be inherited by their progeny.

To drive this kind of evolution in a lab setting, Chory relies on robotic platforms that are traditionally used by pharmaceutical companies to automate jobs like pipetting or to create therapeutics on a mass scale. Her group specializes in PRANCE, or phage-and robotics-assisted near-continuous evolution, which uses custom hardware and      software that Chory helped develop as a postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. PRANCE enables Chory to run her experiments at impressive scales, giving her team the opportunity to explore how population diversity, the timing of environmental changes and even random mutations can affect how bacterial proteins evolve.

Now, with the support of the Hypothesis Fund, Chory and her lab at Duke will use these platforms to accelerate evolution and generate data to better understand how and why proteins develop certain characteristics and not others.

We can use robotics to track why evolution essentially chooses two different paths. By exploring the road less traveled, we can examine the decisions and principles that govern the evolution of important protein interactions.

Emma Chory Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering

Because they’ll be working with large amounts of mutational data to better understand how and why proteins evolve, Chory and her team hope this work will continue to validate the PRANCE system, provide valuable insights into paths and constraints of protein evolution, and contribute valuable foundational knowledge for engineering therapeutic proteins.

It was this push to uncover new foundations in basic science that caught the interest of Harmit Malik, Professor and Associate Director of the Basic Sciences Division at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center and a Scout for the Hypothesis Fund, who shared, “This project is highly innovative and early-stage research which focuses on the science of protein evolution. If successful, Emma’s project will provide fundamental insights into the evolutionary process itself, which will have broad implications on a number of important fields.”

The Hypothesis Fund will provide Chory with seed funding for the project expected to take place over the next 18 months. Beyond the financial support, selected researchers are also inducted into the ever-growing community of Hypothesis Fund awardees and Scouts, where they’ll have unique opportunities to exchange ideas with other bold scientists from highly diverse disciplines.

“I’m thrilled to be a part of this community of talented and inspiring researchers supported by the Hypothesis Fund,” said Chory. “My goal is for this work to allow us to answer basic questions about the way the world works, and I’m grateful to the Hypothesis Fund for recognizing the importance of this work and seeing the potential in our research.”