Zehra Sayers always dreamed of finding precise answers to life’s core questions.
A professor and former president of Turkey’s Sabancı University — and one of the BBC’s most influential women of 2019 — Sayers found those answers through twists and turns on a personal, molecular and international level.
“It’s nice to have dreams,” she said during a recent seminar at the Institute for Protein Innovation (IPI). “You don’t always get to your dream, but it’s good to strive to get there.”
As a young scientist at Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University, Sayers studied physics — hoping the field might hold the key to those indelible questions.
“If you study physics, you can do anything you want in life,” she said. “Because it gives you this strong background and scientific perspective.”
When she realized that physics answered fewer questions than it asked, she resolved to apply physics’ analytical approach to better understand biological systems.
At Guy’s Hospital Medical School at the University of London, on route to a Ph.D. in biophysics, she studied how Amoeba proteus, a large shape-shifting microbe, responded to electrical fields and other stimuli. She quickly became entranced by cellular movement and the reciprocal relationship between molecular structure and function.
Years later, she dove deeper into this dynamic relationship as a European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) staff scientist at the German Synchrotron Research Center (DESY) synchrotron in Hamburg, Germany. Synchrotrons, large-scale circular particle accelerators, use a magnetic field to generate high-strength X-rays.
That radiation is a “powerful tool,” Sayers said, offering a wide range of researchers — from archaeologists to material scientists — a way to image complex structures of condensed and living matter.
“You can think of a synchrotron facility as a huge, gigantic microscope,” Sayers said. And for protein scientists, it grants an unprecedented view of molecular structure in different resolutions and dynamics.
Though she’d eventually leave EMBL to help build Sabancı University in Istanbul as a founding faculty member, her research would continue to rely on synchrotrons to parse out structure’s impact on protein function.
For example, alongside collaborators at Sabancı, Sayers used synchrotron-powered small-angle X-ray scattering (SAXS) to study the structure of metal-binding proteins — namely, metallothioneins in wheat and ferric binding proteins (FbpA) in Haemophilus influenzae — and structural influences on metal homeostasis.
Due to flexibility in the proteins, changes in the cellular environment can trigger slight conformational changes that drive metal binding or release, Sayers explained at IPI. These small-scale shifts govern free metal regulation and concentration within the wheat — with large-scale impact on human health.
“Metal homeostasis is very important,” she said. “It has to be regulated tightly because we need the essential metals for our metabolism. But on the other hand, when they’re at high concentrations, they’re toxic.”
Optimizing these micronutrient levels is a global challenge for food crop production, especially in a region reliant on a cereal-heavy diet. But basic research — like Sayers’ — marks the first step in finding solutions, informing policy and changing health outcomes.
Beyond elucidating protein structures and granting biomedical insights, Sayers over years learned that synchrotrons can also empower interdisciplinary and international collaboration.
“Different researchers can make use of it, and usually it’s young people who work around the clock,” she said. “So, they get to know each other. They learn to build trust.”
But this collaborative force was absent in the Middle East.
The solution, hatched in the late 1990s, was the Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME) Project. But, for decades, it was merely a dream.
Sayers, chair of the SESAME scientific advisory committee, along with other advocates, pushed to rally support from Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Pakistan, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey. They fought to acquire funding despite ideological and political differences. They sourced equipment from Germany, built a new 2.5 GeV storage ring in collaboration with the renown European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and moved the pieces across the globe to a new home in Allan, Jordan.
And in 2018, the dream was realized. SESAME’s first beamline opened for business — the only one in the whole of the Middle East.
To date, SESAME has bolstered access to research tools in the region and has already enabled dozens of publications — including studies into molecular structures in type 2 diabetes and the biochemical content of placenta and plasma in pre-eclampsia.
And it’s helped foster conversation, build trust and bridge sociocultural barriers. The effort, recognized by the AAAS Award for Science Diplomacy in 2019, is a symbol of hope, Sayers said.
“Those fights can be overcome. Those countries, those cultures can understand, but they don’t,” she said. “We have put in an effort to do something about it, at least among scientists. I would like to leave that as a legacy.”
The Institute for Protein Innovation is pioneering a new approach to scientific discovery and collaboration. As a nonprofit research institute, we provide the biomedical research community with synthetic antibodies and deep protein expertise, empowering scientists to explore fundamental biological processes and pinpoint new targets for therapeutic development. Our mission is to advance protein science to accelerate research and improve human health. For more information, visit https://proteininnovation.org/ or follow us on social media, @ipiproteins.