Syracuse University Magazine

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Joseph E. Darling

Enzyme Intrigue

It’s plain to see that enzymes excite chemistry doctoral student Joseph E. Darling G’12. When asked to describe an enzyme he’s researching, the Michigan native reacts with the swiftness he relied on as a former high school sprinter and soccer player. “It’s easier to draw,” he says, springing from his conference-room seat to a white board in the Life Sciences Complex and charting out a molecular interaction in red marker. “Your body has all kinds of enzymes like this, which is what makes biochemistry so cool. It’s really just a chemical reaction on a large scale with proteins. It’s your body’s way of sending and receiving signals, and that’s basically what life is.”

For Darling, the enzyme in question is known as GOAT (ghrelin O-acyltransferase)—a catalyst for modifying the peptide hormone ghrelin, which regulates appetite and other physiological processes. As a member of chemistry professor James Hougland’s research team, Darling is exploring interactions between GOAT and ghrelin to develop GOAT inhibitors that could prevent the enzyme from triggering ghrelin’s hunger signaling. The research may one day lead to a therapeutic treatment for Prader-Willi syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes hyperphagia (insatiable appetite) as well as obesity, and may reveal a connection to diabetes. “I like trouble shooting,” Darling says. “You have fun when things don’t work because you get to try to figure out how to make them work. You study a system and break it down into individual components.”

Darling’s work in Hougland’s lab helped him win a 2012 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, a highly competitive award that comes with an annual stipend, funding for research materials, seminars, and other activities, and allows him to do full-time research. Darling credits Hougland for sparking his interest in enzyme research in the first graduate class he took at SU in fall 2010. “He’s a really good teacher,” Darling says. “I’m so happy I’m in his lab.”

Darling was introduced to research as an undergraduate at Lake Superior State University in Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, performing studies on algal toxins under the guidance of Professor Judy Westrick. “I’m not a numbers person, but when I took organic chemistry, I realized there was more to chemistry than calculations and dimensional analysis,” he says. “There was an art to it.”

After graduating from Lake Superior State, Darling ventured to Sierra Leone, where he worked for a summer on a clean water project as part of a humanitarian relief effort. The experience fulfilled an interest he’d had since childhood of helping out in a developing country and provided him the opportunity to assist desperately poor communities, where children die regularly from cholera contracted through unsafe drinking water. “Kids passed while I was there in the village,” he says. “I had hydrology maps and did my best to pick well locations in different villages. A couple years later, they finally drilled in some of the locations I’d selected.”

When Darling returned stateside, he decided to pursue graduate work in chemistry and SU was on his list. His parents had grown up in Syracuse (his mom, Gail, attended SU) and his sister, Kari G’12, was working on a doctorate in chemistry here at the time. “They were a big influence on me,” he says. 

Now in his fourth year here, Darling, who has logged time as a teaching assistant, knows he’s found a supportive environment that has reinforced his love for teaching and research and where the intrigue of enzymes continues to captivate him. “My NSF funding lasts until May 2015, so that gives me lots of time to get as much done on this project as we possibly can,” he says. “After that, I’m not going to leave any stone unturned with anything I’m curious about.”     —Jay Cox



Photo by Steve Sartori