Meet the Researcher - Ekrem Kaya

Breakout Room: 7

EkremKayaResearcher Name: Ekrem Kaya
Co-Presenter: Jenny Mendis
Title of Research: Identification of Hotspots for SARS-CoV-2 Spike protein and Human ACE2 Binding  
Division Representing: Chemistry
Institution: Freedom High School
Institution Location: Virginia
Home State: Virginia
District Number: At Large
Advisor/Mentor: Tugba Kucukkal
Funding Source: NASA DC Space Grant / American University 

Research Experience:  
Ekrem Kaya is a biology and science enthusiast. Currently a senior at Freedom High School, he had the opportunity to contribute to undergraduate research about mutation effects on proteins at the Quest SRI. In addition, he has worked in analyzing the computational Ala scanning data for SARS-CoV-2 Sgp and hACE2 binding and contributed significantly to the manuscript.  Previously, Ekrem has been named a National Semi-finalist at the U.S.A Biology Olympiads, the Chemistry Department Student of the Year, and a Congressional Award Gold Medalist (Congress' highest youth honor for service, self-development, and exploration). 

Presentation Experience: 
Ekrem Kaya was the MC for the Quest SRI Annual Symposium where he also presented his undergraduate research along with his teammates. He was also a speaker at a virtual College and Career Readiness program held by the STEM Leadership Institute of Southern Connecticut State University. In addition, Ekrem is the founder and president of his school's BIO-CLUB where he gives weekly lectures in preparation for the USABO. 

Significance of Research:       
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that can cause respiratory infections with varying severity from common cold to severe diseases such as novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19). CoVID-19 has been declared as a global pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020 and still continues to this date. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) uses its spike glycoprotein (Sgp) to bind human angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (hACE2) receptor, and mediates membrane fusion and virus entry. The recognition of Sgp to human ACE2 and its high affinity for it has been of great importance since this provides the first step in viral entry to human cells. Therefore, it is crucial to identify key residues (hotspots) in this process. In this study, computational Ala Scanning has been performed for Sgp and hACE2 to determine contributions of interface residues to binding. In addition to interface residues, the residues in close proximity with those were also assessed for their potential impact tin mediating binding. The positions identified as key through the initial Ala scanning were studied further through molecular mechanics-based protein binding free energy change prediction methods. Our findings are consistent with previously identified hotspots but also indicated several newly identified key positions. In addition, cooperativity of numerous interface residue combinations revealed that although some residues have minimal effect in binding individually, they indicate high impact when they were considered simultaneously with others. 

Uniqueness of Research: 
In this very timely and relevant research, we used a unique method which is expected to be not only accurate but also efficient to determine contributions of interface residues in the binding process of SARS-CoV-2 and hACE2. Binding free energy contributions which are greatly affected by intermolecular interactions such as Hydrogen bonding have been determined using molecular simulations. 


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