Deborah Wuttke

Office: JSCBB B223
Lab: JSCBB B280
Lab Phone: 303-492-2369
Fax: 303-492-8425


PhD: California Institute of Technology, 1994
Postdoctoral Fellow: National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow, Scripps Research Institute, 1994-96

Areas of Expertise

Cancer Biology, Chromatin, Electron Cryo-Microscopy (cryo-EM), Molecular Biophysics, Nucleic Acids, Proteins and Enzymology, and Structural Biology.

Awards and Honors

  • 2018-2020 University of Colorado, College of Arts and Sciences Faculty Fellowship
  • 2017 Marinus Smith Award
  • 2013 University of Colorado College Scholar Award
  • 2013 Innovation Award, University of Colorado
  • 2012 University of Colorado College Scholar Award
  • 2009 Butcher Fellow, University of Colorado
  • 2007 Innovation Award, University of Colorado
  • 2005 Butcher Fellow, University of Colorado
  • 2003 Butcher Fellow, University of Colorado
  • 1999 Beckman Young Investigator Award
  • 1998 NSF Career Award
  • 1997 Research Corporation Young Investigator Award
  • 1997 Junior Faculty Development Award, University of Colorado

Research in the Wuttke lab spans two main areas, telomere biology and plasticity in binding.  Details on projects in these areas can be found at our lab web page.

Telomere Biology

Telomeres are specialized nucleoprotein structures at the ends of eukaryotic chromosomes that are essential for chromosome stability and cellular proliferation. Telomeric DNA does not encode for proteins, instead it consists of tandem repeats of TG-rich sequences of double-stranded DNA that terminate in a 3¢ single-stranded DNA overhang. Protection of this overhang is essential. When left unprotected, this overhang initiates DNA damage responses that lead to catastrophic events permanently damaging the genome and resulting in apoptosis or senescence. Furthermore, telomere shortening due to the inability of the DNA-replication machinery to fully replicate the ends is a critical mechanism of tumor suppression as well as a hallmark of aging. Continually proliferating cells maintain adequate telomeres through the action of the reverse transcriptase telomerase.Telomeres are important to human health because dysregulation of either telomere protection or telomerase activity causes many human diseases. Notably, over 90% of human cancers activate telomerase for continued proliferation.

Our research in this area aims to understand how telomere-associated proteins protect and maintain telomeres. Key questions include how subunits of the telomerase enzyme contribute to activity, how the single-strand DNA overhang is shielded from the DNA-damage machinery, and whether capping activity also regulates telomerase action. We develop this knowledge by first understanding the core activities of key telomere factors, then testing these activities in a reconstituted telomerase assay and validating our knowledge directly in the organism.

Plasticity in Molecular Recognition

Many biologically critical recognition events involve the specific binding of flexible ligands such as single-stranded (ss) DNA, RNA, peptides and carbohydrates. Structural plasticity, defined as the ability of an interface to adopt alternate conformations when bound to different ligands, has been invoked to explain binding specificity and promiscuity in several protein/ligand systems. Furthermore, an understanding of the malleability of a binding interface is increasingly recognized as key to predicting its binding activity and specificity. Discerning the scope and mechanisms of rearrangements at binding interfaces is essential to understanding the biophysics of molecular recognition events. The focus of this proposal is to investigate the extent of structural plasticity in the recognition of these flexible ligands.

We use the recognition of ssDNA by the telomere end-binding proteins as the predominant model to characterize the contribution of structural plasticity to recognition. The telomere-end binding proteins Pot1 and Cdc13 bind the conserved 3’ ssDNA overhang at telomeres. This binding is required for cellular viability. However, the sequence of the overhang is somewhat variable, meaning that these proteins need to bind divergent ligands while maintaining exquisite specificity. Extensive evidence suggests that the protein/nucleic acid interface adopts altered configurations in the presence of different ligands that bind with similar affinities. We are investigating the hypothesis that this structural plasticity is important for specificity. Moreover, the malleability of the interface may further contribute to function by providing a way to physically alter the structure and accessibility of the 3’ end. We us an integrated set of strategies to address this question, ranging from determination of high-resolution structures to in vivo assessment of activities.

See my NCBI bibliography for a full and up-to-date list

  • K. A. Lewis, D. A. Pfaff, J. N. Earley, S. E. Altschuler, and D. S. Wuttke, “The Tenacious Recognition of Yeast Telomere Sequence by Cdc13 is Fully Exerted by a Single OB-Fold Domain,” Nucleic Acids Res.2013, Sept 20 epub ahead of print
  • H. R. Steiner, N. C. Lammer, R. T. Batey*, D. S. Wuttke “An extended DNA binding domain of the estrogen receptor alpha directly interacts with RNAs in vitro,” Biochemistry, 2022, 61, 2490-2494. Editor’s Featured Article. 
  • N. C. Lammer, H. M. Ashraf, D. A. Ugay, S. L. Spencer, M. A. Allen, R. T. Batey and D. S Wuttke, “RNA binding by the glucocorticoid receptor attenuates dexamethasone-induced gene activation,” Science Reports, 2023, doi: 10.1038/s41598-023-35549-y
  • A. T. Barbour and D. S Wuttke, “RPA-like single-stranded DNA-binding protein complexes including CST serve as specialized processivity factors for polymerases,” Current Opinion in Structural Biology, 2023 doi: 10.1016/