Published: Feb. 15, 2023

Karolin Luger is one of a select group of professors to be recognized as a Distinguished Professor, the highest honor bestowed upon faculty members

With a vote by the CU Board of Regents, the University of Colorado recently recognized Karolin Luger as a Distinguished Professor—the highest honor bestowed upon faculty across the system’s four campuses.  

Distinguished Professors are tenured faculty members who demonstrate exemplary performance in research or creative work; a record of excellence in promoting learning and student attainment of knowledge and skills; and outstanding service to the profession, the university and its affiliates. Including this year’s honorees, 138 have been named since inception of the title in 1977. 

Luger, the Jennie Smoly Caruthers Endowed Chair of Biochemistry, Department of Biochemistry, University of Colorado Boulder, is an internationally recognized researcher who joined the CU Boulder faculty in 2015.  

She has received many honors, including a 2005 appointment to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and elections to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2017) and the National Academy of Sciences (2018). 

Karolin Luger

Karolin Luger specializes in cell signaling, molecular biophysics, nucleic acids, proteins & enzymology, and structural biology.

Her work has yielded insights into the impact of nucleosomes on gene transcription, DNA replication and repair and other DNA-templated processes. 

Luger recently answered five questions about the nature of her work, what she is most proud of during her time at CU Boulder, and her initial reaction to being named as a Distinguished Professor. Her responses follow:  

Question: If a group of first-year students were to ask you why they should understand chromatin and/or the structural biology of the genome organization, what would you tell them? 

Luger: The so-called blueprint of life (the ‘genome’) is an incredibly long and thin thread with no distinctive features. Every cell in our bodies contains the same blueprint.  

The information stored on very different regions of that thread must be ‘transcribed and translated’ in a precise manner. A liver cell, for example, will need to access very specific areas of the genome in a precisely orchestrated manner, and completely different regions might be needed in a neuron.   

How does a cell ‘know’ which regions to find, and how does it find it? (akin to finding 35 numbered needles in a very large haystack, in the precise order and in a short time). Bad things happen if this doesn’t work exactly the way it is supposed to work.  

We study how the genome is organized and ‘labeled’ to allow this readout to happen, and how it is organized in three dimensions. We believe that by understanding how something looks like we will understand how it works.  

Question: If there were just one thing you could convey to people about your research, what would it be? 

Luger: We have made very surprising discoveries by looking in unusual (and weird) systems. For example, we study giant viruses that turn amoebae to ‘stone,’ or bacteria that literally burrow into other bacteria and eat them from the inside.  

Arguably, this has no relevance to human health, but we made very surprising discoveries that allow us to better understand how the human genome works. This is my big shoutout for ‘basic’ research.  

There is a lot of urgency to developing the next drug, or to cure cancer or Alzheimer’s disease, but I believe that stepping back a bit and study systems that are off-the-beaten track can be hugely informative and open entire new fields. Plus, it is fun! 

Question: What are you most proud of during your time with the university? And, what is the best thing about being a professor at CU Boulder? 

Luger: I am most proud of having brought a Titan Krios cryo electron microscope to CU Boulder through combined money from HHMI (Howard Hughes Medical Institute) and CU Boulder.  

I established a very productive facility that serves the entire region. This (very expensive) instrument is essential for structural biologists such as myself to observe molecular structures. It was a lot of work to get this instrument funded and operational, and to establish what is now the BioKEM facility This facility is used by about 10 labs at CU Boulder.   

It is now one of the highest-performing instruments in the world, and, because it is the only one in a wide swath of the country, it has had a huge ripple effect way beyond CU Boulder. We have recently been able to purchase a smaller TEM (transcription electron microscopy) to alleviate bottlenecks that arose because of the success of the Krios.  

I believe this really has helped CU to retain its rightful place at the forefront of molecular biology and biophysics and to take full advantage of the ‘resolution revolution’ in cryoEM. It has also brought in a lot of external funding, so it’s really a win-win. 

The best thing about being a prof at CU Boulder is the collegial work environment. We all cheer for each other’s successes, and we bring out the best in each other. This is pervasive at all levels, all the way to undergraduate researchers.  

I also love the strong commitment to undergraduate education. CU is a very pleasant place to work, and it allows us to focus on the important things such as science, teaching, and mentoring, and not waste any time on ‘politics.’   

Question: What was your initial reaction to being named a Distinguished Professor? 

Luger: Very humbled, because I feel that many of my colleagues are much more distinguished. Also, grateful to my colleagues who took the time to assemble the nomination package—this is a lot of work! And most importantly, gratitude to my current and past lab members, whose hard work and creativity is really what made this happen. 

Question: Outside of the university, what are a few of your favorite of your favorite activities? 

Luger: Long, grueling hikes in the Rocky Mountains (or really any mountains), summer, winter, spring and fall, I love them all. Playing the piano (badly), and books, always.