Meet the Researcher - Jenny Mendis

Breakout Room: 7

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

Research Experience:  
Jenny Mendis is an aspiring Deaf undergraduate student at Gallaudet University pursuing a chemistry degree. She is passionate about pharmacognosy and the impact of natural products on human health and disease. Previously, she has contributed to three undergraduate research projects at Gallaudet and James Madison Universities. Titles of her projects were Synthesis of Peptide Boronic Acid Gelators, Design and Synthesis of Novel Small Organic Molecules for the Treatment of Neurological Disorder, and Understanding the effects of PKU-Associated Mutations on PAH Protein.  For the PKU research project, Jenny was the leader of the group developing a multilingual mobile application to disseminate PKU information. She is now completing her fourth undergraduate research project: Hotspots Identification for SARS-CoV-2 Spike protein and Human ACE2 Binding. For this project, she collected and helped analyzing data and subsequently contributed to the manuscript describing the work. In addition, she is a frequent STEM volunteer and currently works as a Chemistry and Math tutor at Gallaudet.

Presentation Experience: 
Jenny Mendis had several presentation experiences. She presented her summer REU project from James Madison University at their undergraduate research symposium. She also presented this work at Gallaudet University and also to wider STEM community at James Madison.  Jenny was also the leader of an undergraduate research group working on understanding effects of PKU-associated mutations on PAH protein. The group developed a tri-lingual mobile app to disseminate PKU information and their research to the public and particularly for people without science background. The app includes English, American Sign Language and Spanish.  

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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