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Richard Roberts

Professor of Chemistry, Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, Biomedical Engineering, and Molecular and Computational Biology


  • Doctoral Degree, Biochemistry, Yale University
  • Bachelor's Degree, Chemistry, University of Kansas


Rich Roberts graduated with honors and highest distinction in Chemistry from the University of Kansas in 1987. He then received his Ph.D. in Biophysical Chemistry in 1993, working in Don Crothers lab at Yale. There, he was the first to establish the striking stability of RNA-DNA hybrid triplexes, determine the specificity of triplex recognition, and develop a set of thermodynamic and kinetic rules for the formation of nucleic acid triple helices. In 1993, he began postdoctoral work with Lasker Award winner Jack Szostak, designing and developing mRNA display, a system for totally in vitro peptide and protein selection. In 1997, he co-founded the biotechnology company Phylos Inc. (with Jack Szostak and Brian Seed) and joined the Chemistry faculty at the California Institute of Technology. In 2006, he joined the faculty of USC, where he is an Associate Professor of Chemistry, Biology, and Chemical Engineering.

Research Summary

Prof. Roberts lab uses mRNA display to design new peptides and proteins exploring fundamental aspects of molecular recognition, strategies for new drug development, and probes for biological systems.

Research in the Roberts lab focuses on the protein synthesis machinery both as a tool for polypeptide design and as a target that can be probed using chemical means. A key aspect of my lab's work is peptide and protein design using in vitro selection experiments. Toward this end, we use mRNA display, a technique the PI conceived and implemented to enable polypeptide design (see figure below). This approach allows the lab to create and sieve more than 10 trillion independent peptide or protein sequences for function, the most of any technique currently available. In applying any design approach, it is optimal if key issues, including affinity, specificity, diversity, structure, dynamics, and biological activity can be addressed in a principled way. The lab desires to execute a research program that tackles all of these issues.

Our passion is using the tools of chemistry to understand and control biological processes. We have applied our design approach to address biological control, molecular recognition, stability, and dynamics in RNA-peptide complexes, G proteins and G protein coupled receptors (GPCRs). In the future, our efforts should provide new tools for systems biology and leads for therapeutic development.

We are also very interested to re-engineer the protein synthesis machinery to create unnatural mRNA display libraries. This project, a nanoscale engineering effort, works to merge the power of display selections with the flexibility of combinatorial chemistry. To do this, the lab has worked to extend mRNA display beyond the natural genetic code, in an effort to create new and richly diverse compositions of matter for ligand design, drug discovery, and beyond.

In conjunction with our re-engineering efforts, we have become intensely interested in thinking about the ribosome as a target for puromycin analogues. Our work began with efforts to understand the ribosome's substrate specificity. These efforts have also yielded unexpected and exciting new reagents that have enabled us to visualize protein synthesis in vivo in T-cells and neurons with spatial and temporal resolution.

  • Chemistry
  • Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science
  • Alfred E. Mann Department of Biomedical Engineering
  • Biegler Hall of Engineering
  • 920 Downey Way, Los Angeles, CA 90089
  • USC Mail Code: 2905
Contact Information
  • (213) 821-4132