New Faculty Profile: Monica Neugebauer

Photo of Monica NeugebauerThe Department of Biochemistry welcomes Monica Neugebauer, who joins the faculty in September 2023.

The Neugebauer Lab will focus on the discovery and evolution of enzymes to unlock their catalytic capabilities for use in biochemical reactions.

“This university is an ideal place for interdisciplinary research, which allows us to tackle problems in new and innovative ways,” says Neugebauer of her decision to join the UW–Madison community. “There are strengths across many departments — including biochemistry, chemistry, and chemical engineering — and a collaborative and collegial environment.” Neugebauer will also be an affiliate in the Department of Chemistry.

Neugebauer majored in engineering at MIT before joining the doctoral program in engineering at University of California Berkeley. However, she was always drawn to chemistry. While at UC Berkeley, Neugebauer explored opportunities that would merge her background in engineering with her interest in chemistry, eventually leading her to join a lab group focusing on engineering bacteria and enzymes to facilitate biochemical experiments and reactions.

“Bacteria have evolved to produce enzymes that give them a survival advantage and do really useful things in nature,” explains Neugebauer. “And those enzymes can also be quite useful for humans who are doing chemical reactions that are difficult to achieve with traditional tools and methods. For example, there are enzymes that can make a very selective modification to a molecule, such as removing a single hydrogen and replacing it with a halogen.”

Neugebauer was fascinated by the notion that enzymes which exist because they provide an evolutionary advantage to bacteria can also be harnessed for use by humans. As a postdoctoral researcher at the Broad Institute, she began to investigate ways that enzyme evolution could be manipulated beyond what is commonly found in nature to produce new enzymes with desirable characteristics.

“Bacteria haven’t evolved for the purpose producing enzymes that are useful for humans,” says Neugebauer, “but there are ways that we can, in a laboratory, encourage enzyme evolution to result in something that’s useful for people.” Her work explored how enzyme evolution can be manipulated for the purpose of gene editing, with the goal of therapeutic treatments for genetic diseases.

Now, Neugebauer’s work will combine the discovery, evolution, and engineering of new enzymes — especially enzymes with metal cofactors — to establish tools that pave the way for new research and discovery. Neugebauer says, “In my lab, I’m interested in using enzymes as tools that can help us study basic biology — how human cells are working — which, in turn, can help us understand mechanisms of diseases and how we might be able to prevent them.”

Neugebauer is also interested in exploring the ways that enzyme engineering can reduce waste, resulting in more sustainable tools for biochemists. “Enzymes can help us improve on the reactions that we can already do synthetically,” says Neugebauer. “Using enzymes can sometimes reduce the number of steps in a reaction, which can save money and result in a smaller environmental impact. We can also use enzymes to reduce toxic byproducts or the use of harsh solvents used in reactions.”

In addition to her expertise in enzymology and engineering, Neugebauer brings to her work an enthusiastic love for mentorship and research. “I think enthusiasm goes a long way in science,” reflects Neugebauer. “Enthusiasm and resilience. Most of the time, research doesn’t go right the first time. It’s important to be excited about the process and to find joy in trying again.”

Written by Renata Solan.