Fellow Focus: Rhiju Das

October 15, 2010
JCC Fellow, 2006–2009

In 2001, Rhiju Das – at the time a PhD student in theoretical physics at Stanford University – attended a scientific talk where he learned about biological machines known as ribosomes, the cellular workhorses that turn RNA into proteins. The atoms that make up this “machine” self-assemble into unique structures with exquisite precision. “This struck me as completely magical,” says Das. Das made an abrupt career change, leaving behind his pursuit of galaxies and particle physics to probe the underlying biology of how RNA and protein sequences form into complex structures – a problem that dates back to the identification of these molecules in the 1940s and 50s.

“Protein folding is a bit like solving a jigsaw puzzle,” says Das, who is now an assistant professor of biochemistry and physics at Stanford. “We have all the pieces, we know their shapes and how they can fit together. But it’s just a really hard puzzle.”

Das has made major strides towards unraveling the complexities of RNA and protein folding. During his post-doctoral research as a Jane Coffin Childs fellow, Das made groundbreaking advances in the computational prediction of how strings of amino acids twist and fold intricately into proteins. He also used novel approaches to understand RNA folding, which is far less studied than protein folding. One of Das’ projects involved tapping the computational power of tens of thousands of volunteer computers (rather than the hundreds that were available locally) to create algorithms that could predict certain proteins and RNAs with great accuracy.

Unfortunately, even with the surge in computational power for predicting the structures of these molecules, the large majority of them still cannot be accurately rendered with currently available tools and algorithms. So when Das began his own lab in 2008, he decided to go back to the basics. He is focusing on some of the smallest RNA and protein molecules, “almost like toy puzzles.” He and his team have successfully modeled a number of these small molecules and are currently setting up blind trials to rigorously test their ideas. By gaining insights about how the tiniest molecules take shape, Das hopes to put the puzzle together one piece at a time.