MSU researcher receives Human Frontier Science Program grant for international collaboration

Published April 7, 2017

MSU's Alex Dickson, along with collaborators from Australia and Germany, has received a $1.2 million Human Frontier Science Program grant to gain further insight into how cells respond dynamically to stress, particularly related to disease and aging.

Michigan State University Assistant Professor Alex Dickson, along with collaborators in Australia and Germany, has received a three-year, $1.2 million Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) grant.

The HFSP offers international research support that aids scientific advancement through research grants, fellowships, workshops and awards.

“This grant enables me to participate in an international collaboration with extraordinary researchers,” said Dickson, who holds joint appointments in MSU’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Department of Computational Mathematics, Science and Engineering. “In my group, we typically study atomic motions in systems involving one or two molecules. This research will bring us in a new direction, as we will use experimental data to model populations of proteins in a cell-wide context. I am honored to receive this grant and I’m very excited about this new direction!”

The international research team of Dickson, Danny Hatters (University of Melbourne), Simon Ebbinghaus (Ruhr-University Bochum) and Hannah Nicholas (University of Sydney) will use the grant for the project titled “Defining the capacity of cells to keep the proteome folded over space and time.” The grant will be split among the members of the team.

Proteins are made as strings of amino acids, but need to “fold” to a particular conformation in order to do their job in the cell, Dickson explained. Under stress, proteins can unfold and aggregate, which can have catastrophic consequences; this is the basis for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, which affect millions of individuals in the United States alone. The cell has a built-in system of “chaperones” to help proteins fold and prevent aggregation.  

“This research project will use a novel biosensor that can measure the health of a chaperone system inside the cell,” Dickson said. “Using this sensor will allow us to determine the buffering capacity of the chaperone system in healthy and diseased cells. The answer will provide insight into how cells respond dynamically to stresses, how resilient cells are to such stresses, and how quality control systems become degraded or overwhelmed in diseased contexts and upon aging.”

Out of 851 proposals, 60 applications were received and 21 program grants were awarded. The MSU team ranked 4th overall in the process.

In addition to the program grants, HFSP awarded 9 Young Investigator Grants.

For a complete list of HFSP 2017 grant awardees, visit