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Faculty Focus: Molecular and Structural Biochemistry’s Thomas Makris

As a new faculty member in the Department of Molecular and Structural Biochemistry at NC State, Thomas Makris is pursuing enzyme research aimed at paving the way for better fuels, medicines and more.

Makris joined the university as an associate professor. A native of Baltimore, Maryland, Makris previously served as an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina. He holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Pennsylvania and a Ph.D. in biophysics and computational biology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He was a postdoc at the University of Minnesota.

Although he’s yet to meet many of his new colleagues in person, Makris says he’s excited to be at NC State and eager to work with his new colleagues.

What’s your area of focus and any research you can tell us about? 

I’m involved in a few projects related to  enzymes and how they work, specifically how enzymes are used to make natural products that have industrial and pharmaceutical value. My lab focuses on trying to understand what those enzymes do, the chemistry behind how they work and what their biological role is. An example of an ongoing project in our lab is understanding how certain microbes, as well as other organisms, can make hydrocarbons that we can then use as fuels. And so we’re trying to identify those enzymes, identify those pathways, and determine how to develop platforms in bacteria to make something similar to biofuels. 

My lab is also trying to understand how bacteria can make elegant, natural products in the form of antibiotics. Everybody hears of antibiotic resistance as being a huge problem and where will new antibiotics come from? We’re trying to learn from that chemistry. How do bacteria natively make natural products like antibiotics, and how can we mimic that chemistry and expand that chemistry by using those enzymes? We are inspired by the enzymology we see in nature and we want to both understand it and leverage it. It’s emerging biochemistry that’s poorly understood. It’s something new to learn and understand, and I’m really excited about that potential.

What are you most excited about in your role at NC State and, specifically, in the department?

The reason my group joined NC State is because there are so many collaborative opportunities here. I have a joint appointment in chemistry, and I’m really excited about what we can bring to other people’s research and, conversely, what they can bring to ours. There’s so much expertise, and the facilities at NC State are absolutely amazing for the kind of research we want to do. It’s kind of a new playground for us. All of a sudden we have tools that enable us to learn about enzyme biochemistry in exquisite detail. It is pushing our research in the new directions, and that’s exciting.

What goals do you have for yourself while at NC State?

A big motivation for coming to NC State is the trajectory of the molecular and structural biochemistry department. I really love seeing the department’s vision. My goal is to figure out how I can best contribute and support that vision and help us grow. I’m happy to take part in that vision, where I can serve in a mentoring capacity for people getting started. We have a lot of really outstanding young faculty that have started in the last couple of years and so it is a vibrant group.

As a scientist, I really want to challenge myself into new areas and learn new things. I’m inspired by what surrounds us both in terms of people and facilities.

Anything else you’d like to share with the college?

Historically, a big part of my research involves undergraduates. Involving undergraduate students has always been important to me, because in addition to providing them with what I hope is a valuable research opportunity, it also challenges us as teachers and as scientists to be better communicators. 

This post was originally published in College of Agriculture and Life Sciences News.