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University of Colorado Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics

Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics

Lab Personnel

David Costantino, M.S., HHMI Lab Manager

”In my role as lab manager I am responsible for much of the day to day operation, but I also get to do research, which is the main reason I am so excited ​to be part of this g​roup. When people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them I can save the crickets, and that is always a great way to introduce what we study in our lab.”

David likes donuts…with sprinkles. He also plays tennis, eats BBQ and Italian food, loves baseball, plays poker, goes to lots of hockey games, and teaches chess to school kids. Scouting reports describe him as a fantasy sport force to be reckoned with whenever he steps on the field.

Ben Akiyama, Postdoctoral Fellow

“I am currently studying how the dynamics of structured viral RNA elements impact their function. This includes investigating how the folding and unfolding pathways of viral RNAs affect their unique properties and studying the motions of various RNA domains as they interact with cellular machinery. By breaking down these processes, I hope to be able to "create a movie" of these important molecules in action.”

Ben comes with a background in single-molecule fluorescence or RNA-protein complexes. He grew up in San Francisco, which makes him a 49ers and Giants (the baseball kind) fan. We like him anyway.

Erich Chapman, PhD., Postdoctoral Fellow

Currently funded by an F32 Postdoctoral Fellowship From the NIH

“Dengue, West Nile and Yellow Fever are all caused by viruses from the Flavivirus family. It’s recently been discovered that a relatively short, subgenomic RNA plays an important role in the lifecycle of these viruses. This ¬short flaviviral RNA (sfRNA) is produced by limited degradation of the viral genome by the host-cell exonuclease Xrn1. Xrn1 is a conserved, highly processive 5’à3’ exonuclease and is a critical component of RNA metabolism in eukaryotic cells. This exonuclease proceeds through over 10kb of flaviviral RNA before becoming stalled at one of several conserved secondary structures present in the 3’ untranslated region of each flaviviral genome. My mission is to dissect the biophysical properties that confer Xrn1-resistance to these RNAs and to ultimately leverage this understanding into a treatment for disease.”


Erich is a maverick.


Daniel Eiler, PhD., Postdoctoral Fellow

”My interests are to use biochemical and crystallographic approaches to characterize the interactions between a viral RNA and its cellular protein target, and to understand how this interaction manipulates the protein’s function. Specifically, I want to find out how the RNA element recognizes its target, elucidate the important interactions between the two molecules, and understand how this induces a certain viral outcome.”

Daniel brings a wealth of structural knowledge and experience. He likes running, lifting, football, baseball, board games, camping, swing dancing, and traveling. His favorite TV shows are The Big Bang Theory and Elementary.

Yumeng Hao, Graduate Student (Molecular Biology)
Currently an American Heart Association Predoctoral Fellow

“My project focuses on a RNA molecule in a bacteriophage packaging motor. During viral assembly, the phi29 bacteriophage uses a powerful packaging motor to package its 19.3 kb DNA genome into the capsid in less than five minutes and the packaging process is under tremendous back-pressure, around 79pN, which is roughly ten times the pressure in a champagne bottle. However, no one really understands how this awesome motor works. Currently, I use biochemical and biophysical methods to characterize the pRNA, which is an important component of the motor, understand its role and how it interacts with other components to package the genome.”

“What-is-up?” Yumeng arrived in the U.S. and jumped right into research with a vengeance. She’s got an artistic flair (origami, drawing), she likes Kung Fu Panda (and other cartoons), traveling, and judging from this photo, Renaissance fairs as well. “Have a good one.”

Erik Hartwick, Graduate Student (Structural Biology and Biochemistry)

“RNA “working” RNA—I’m studying how structured RNA virus elements manipulate the ribosome, an RNA-based machine. Many viruses have evolved ways to commandeer host cell ribosomes and initiate protein synthesis in a streamlined mechanism compared to normal eukaryotic translation. Unique viral RNA structural elements, known as an IRES, drive this streamlined mechanism of protein synthesis in the absence of initiation factors, capped and polyadenylated mRNAs.  It is my goal to understand what a viral IRES RNA-bound ribosome structure looks like at the atomic resolution and how these small RNA structures biophysically engage the ribosome. I think this is exceptionally rad because it is an example of two non-coding RNAs interacting in a structurally dynamic way to drive efficient protein synthesis...mind blown.”

Erik is an official “tough mudder,” rock climber, beer drinker, and lover of all things outdoors. He wants to crystallize big stuff. Any visual similiarity to “groundskeeper Willie” is mereley superficial.

Andrea MacFadden, Professional Research Associate

Research description coming soon

Andrea has lots of experience expressing and purifying proteins...lots. We are going to allow her to do some more of that, but also introduce her to the RNA world. Once we get her hooked, she will never go back!

Marisa Ruehle, Graduate Student (Molecular Biology)
Completed Molecular Biology T32 training grant appointment 
Completed American Heart Association Predoctoral Fellowship

“My project in the Kieft Lab focuses on understanding how the IGR IRESs initiate protein synthesis. The IGR IRESs accomplish internal initiation solely through their compact tertiary fold, and we hypothesize that this induces structural changes in the ribosome and tRNA that essentially “trick” them into proceeding to the elongation phase of translation. I think it is so cool how this one 200 nucleotide RNA can manipulate a huge molecular machine simply through changes in structure and conformational dynamics. Furthermore, the IGR IRESs give us a window into the basic principles of ribosome function by allowing us to study how viruses have evolved to hijack this important cellular machine for their own purposes.”

Marisa has great hair, but only sports this ‘do on Fridays. She also plays volleyball, likes to cook, skis (telemark – you should be impressed), hikes, and loves the Colorado outdoors.

Zane Jaafar, Graduate Student (Microbiology)


“My interests in the Kieft lab are in understanding the interplay between Hepatitis C virus (HCV) RNA biology and cellular stress responses. Specifically, I aim to study the manner in which the HCV internal ribosome entry site (IRES) is able to maintain its capacity for translation during infection-induced cellular stress-response programs. I intend to add to a growing body of research that is bridging the gap between RNA structural biology and RNA virology.” 

Zane is much smarter than this picture might suggest. Then again, he does skydive a lot, which could bring his smarts into question. Zane finds humor in odd things, which we find funny, which he thinks is amusing.

Brian Wimberly, PhD., HHMI Research Specialist

Brian wants to push the frontiers of structural biology. Beyond that, you aren’t getting any more information out of him, so don’t even try.

Karen Vockrodt, Finance Accounting Senior Professional

Reimbursements, travel, scheduling… you name it! Karen keeps everything straight because goodness knows we can’t count on Jeff for that