Professor Rachel Austin


On April 17, 2023, Rachel Narehood Austin, Diana T. and P. Roy Vagelos Professor of Chemistry, published new research in the journal Nature Communications, alongside three Barnard students — Juliet Lee, Shoshana C. Williams, and Allison Forsberg. The breakthrough paper, “Structure and mechanism of the alkane-oxidizing enzyme AlkB,” details how a team of researchers, including key collaborators Professor Liang Feng Stanford University and Post-Doctoral Associate Xue Guo (along with other Stanford scientists), discovered the three-dimensional structure of one of the most important enzymes in the carbon cycle. Alkane monooxygenase (AlkB) plays a key role in the global carbon cycle and remediation of oil spills by converting straight-chain alkanes (the most energy-rich form of carbon) to alcohols. 

The authors used cryogenic electron microscopy (cryo-EM) to examine frozen AlkB samples, which revealed unique features. Namely, AlkB contains an unexpected configuration of the diiron active site and structural features that help explain the molecular mechanisms of substrate selectivity.

This research marks the culmination of more than 20 years of work for Professor Austin, who made completing the project a key goal she set for herself upon moving to Barnard. The study’s findings provide important insight into the catalytic mechanism of AlkB and shed light on its function in alkane-degrading microorganisms.