Had Peter Belenky not turned out to be a scientist, he would have been an architect. Either way he’d be working in a field that runs on inspiration and creativity.
But first Belenky had to choose between those two futures. He straddled the line between them when he was an undergraduate at Brandeis University with a double major in studio art and biochemistry. In his sophomore year he won funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to do summer research in enzymology. He found this rendezvous with science to be too fortuitous to resist.
“Really every experiment worked in the first summer that I did my work,” said Belenky, who this summer became an assistant professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at Brown. “That never happens. That’s not how science works, but that’s probably why I’m not an architect now.”
Ever since that streak of success he has studied and worked as a biologist, though he has also continued to sculpt, draw, and paint. Along the way he’s consistently found that science and art start from the same point. Science has its rigorous protocols, but it still depends on imagination.
“In reality, science happens when you are walking down the street, you have an idea and you want to test it,” he said. “I think it’s mostly inspiration.”
That certainly hit him while in graduate school at Dartmouth. He was studying NAD (an essential chemical in cellular metabolism and energy production), its vitamin precursor NR, and how NR activates another chemical called SIR2 to promote longevity in yeast and other organisms.
But Belenky went beyond merely describing that activity. The potential value of NR inspired him to engineer a strain of yeast that could produce it at an industrial scale. He patented this yeast and it was later licensed commercially. The work also won a national award from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
As a postdoctoral scholar at Boston University and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard, he gained training in systems biology and synthetic biology (the practice of assembling functional building blocks of DNA to create new capabilities in organisms). His studies focused on the metabolic and genetic responses of bacteria and fungi to the medicines we use to fight them.
During that work inspiration again struck Belenky and his colleagues including adviser James Collins. Why not harness a probiotic bacterium that can survive in the body to produce antibiotics on demand? They won a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a yogurt probiotic bacterium to detect the presence of cholera and to produce a compound to fight it.
Now at Brown, Belenky is eager to dive deeper into an area of biology with enormous room for discovery and innovation: the bustling universe of hundreds, if not thousands, of bacterial species and other microbes that reside in our bodies. Scientists call that the microbiome. It has barely been studied because it is so complex, but new tools have recently made it possible to learn more.
Using the high-throughput genome sequencing equipment available at the Laboratories for Molecular Medicine at 70 Ship St., Belenky can sort through the microbiome to learn how it responds to antimicrobial medicines.
But he will also pursue a broader insight from the yogurt project: the idea that the microbiome is not only an interesting community to observe, but one that can perhaps be put to work in the body for the benefit of us hosts.
“The microbiome can serve as something you can study but it can also serve as a reservoir where you can deliver therapeutic activity from its members,” he said.
He’s delighted to be at Brown to do that work, he said.
“We have a nice sequencing facility, there’s a mouse facility, and there’s a large hospital across the river full of researchers that are also doing excellent work that could be helpful,” he said.
Not every experiment will work, of course, but so long as Belenky continues to find inspiration, he’ll be able to perform creative science.