Colorado State University Biochemistry Professor Obtains Stimulus Funds to Study Path of Important Human Protein

Note to Reporters: A photo of Professor Robert Cohen is available with the news release at

The National Institutes of Health has awarded Professor Robert Cohen, joint professor and senior research scientist at Colorado State University, a two-year $674,000 stimulus grant to understand the function of ubiquitin – a protein in cells that can lead to major disease depending on the path it takes.

Cohen was one of 19 professors in 12 states to receive a total of $16.5 million in funding through the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. The grant is part of the NIH Challenge Grant initiative to encourage a range of research projects that will address critical gaps in the basic biomedical and behavioral sciences.

Cohen, who joined Colorado State earlier this year from Johns Hopkins University, studies ubiquitin – a small protein that controls many different functions in the human body, good or bad.

Every cell in the body has a system of hundreds of different enzymes, called ligases, responsible for recognizing protein targets and coordinating their attachment to ubiquitin – a process called ubiquitination. Additionally, there are nearly 100 different enzymes that can help a protein detach from ubiquitin. Defects in ubiquitination and deubiquitination have been implicated in a wide range of human diseases.

“What we don’t know is the protein targets that these enzymes select,” Cohen said. “My approach will be to modify the enzyme in a way that, when it finds its target, it will leave a unique tag that will allow us to fish the protein out of a cell and identify it chemically. The trick will be to accomplish this tagging in vivo and to make it specific.

“The identities of the targets is the biggest missing piece in understanding more about how ubiquitin functions,” Cohen said.

Reviewers of Cohen’s proposal said that if the research proves generally useful, it would have broad implications in the field of biochemistry and other areas of biology.

NIH officials announced in June that they had received roughly 21,000 applications for Challenge Grants, a new program under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that is expected to stimulate the economy through new jobs and programs. So far, only 840 have been awarded, according to NIH.

Cohen plans to hire the equivalent of two full-time staffers to assist with the research.