Michael Cianfrocco

LSI welcomes new faculty member

May 17, 2017

The University of Michigan Life Sciences Institute is pleased to welcome structural biologist Michael Cianfrocco, Ph.D., to its faculty.

Cianfrocco joins the LSI as an assistant research professor, and will hold a joint appointment in the U-M Medical School’s Department of Biological Chemistry.

His research program will focus on understanding the molecular details that determine how, where, and when motor proteins transport intracellular cargo. Problems in this process can result in neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative diseases.

“Neurons are huge cells that go all the way from your back down to your toe,” Cianfrocco says. “And these motor proteins have to ‘walk’ back and forth along the length of the neuron carrying organelles and other important cargos. So the big questions in the field revolve around how mutations in these proteins lead to diseases like Huntington’s and Parkinson’s — and how might we translate more detailed molecular understandings into measures that could prevent or correct these defects?”

Cianfrocco comes to the LSI from a Damon Runyon postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of California, San Diego, where he specialized in cryo-electron microscopy and single-molecule methods.

Cryo-electron microscopy, or cryo-EM, involves freezing proteins in a thin layer of solution and then bouncing electrons off of them to reveal their shape. Because the frozen proteins are oriented every which way, computer software can later combine the thousands of individual snapshots into a 3-D picture at near-atomic resolution.

“One of the things that attracted me to Michigan was the LSI’s world-class cryo-EM facility,” Cianfrocco says.

Single-molecule techniques involve purifying the motor proteins and looking at them using a specialized fluorescent microscope that lets scientists observe individual molecules in action.

“We can watch hundreds of molecules walk at the same time, and perturb the system in methodical ways to understand what changes,” Cianfrocco says.

Additionally, Cianfrocco’s lab will work on developing new tools for the cryo-EM community.

“We’d like to overcome some of the current barriers around access to finding suitable high-performance computing clusters and help users focus on understanding biology instead of dealing with Linux,” Cianfrocco says.

LSI Director Roger D. Cone notes, “The institute already has great strength and specialization in structural biology, and Dr. Cianfrocco’s work will help us continue to push boundaries and break new ground using cutting-edge tools and techniques.”

The LSI is home to the Center for Structural Biology, a core lab directed by faculty member Janet Smith, Ph.D., that specializes in X-ray crystallography and protein production. And faculty members Daniel Southworth, Ph.D., and Zhaohui Xu, Ph.D., both use structural biology to investigate molecular chaperones.