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Université de Montréal

Portrait of a researcher

[Translate to English:] Malik Chaker-Margot

Structural biology and molecular poetry

Malik Chaker-Margot


Assistant Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine


“Each molecule in a living organism has its own function, its own beauty,” says Malik Chaker-Margot, a structural biology researcher who specializes in cell signalling. “It’s poetry in action!”

Chaker-Margot uses incredibly precise electron microscopy to observe the proteins, ribonucleic acids (RNAs) and other components involved in cell behaviour. He’s amazed that this cellular machinery is comparable to mechanisms that humans have taken centuries to perfect. “Jocelyn Forget, my cell biology professor, used to say that we’ve never invented anything: everything already exists in nature!”

After earning a doctorate from Rockefeller University in New York and completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the Biozentrum of the University of Basel in Switzerland, Chaker-Margot has returned to the University of Montreal, where he teaches alongside his former professors. His main goal is to reveal the secrets of two types of molecules: small GTPases and long non-coding RNAs. “My job is to visualize their structure and to try to understand how they work and the cellular disorders that they bring about when they are altered or overexpressed,” he explains. “Several cancers are caused by the mutation of a signalling protein.”

Chaker-Margot is not only looking for beauty in these molecules: he also hopes to find ways to cure disease. “Although this is basic research, structural biology can contribute to the development of new treatments. By providing information on the structure of proteins or RNAs that cause cancer, we facilitate the creation of molecules that can target them,” he says. This area of research is particularly dear to his heart, since there have been several cases of cancer in his family. “I firmly believe that scientific curiosity can lead to discoveries that will improve society. And if that curiosity is nourished by poetry, all the better!”

Why are you interested in small GTPases and long non-coding RNAs?


Small GTPases are like little molecular switches that trigger various cellular processes. They dictate how cells divide and move, and they are linked to the onset of cancers and the formation of metastases. My research focuses on the proteins that regulate them. They are absolutely fascinating because they encode and transmit signals from other molecules and adapt their intrinsic activity accordingly. It’s incredible that an amino acid chain can do such a complicated job.

As for long non-coding RNAs, for a long time they were thought to be non-functional. But in fact, they seem to play a role in regulating cell behaviour. I’m trying to understand their function by producing them, purifying them and describing their structure and their interactions with other cell components.

What are you most proud of?

My postdoctoral research was on a congenital syndrome called neurofibromatosis type 1, which is caused by a mutation in a protein. I delivered a paper at a conference on neurofibromatosis. After that, several doctors wrote to me to tell me that my research may portend a new way of combatting the disease. It was the first time I saw the influence I could have on society as a scientist.