Neal K. Devaraj

2018 National Award Winner — Faculty

Neal K. Devaraj

Current Position:
Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry

University of California, San Diego

Chemical Biology

Recognized for: Transformative work on the synthesis of artificial cells and breakthroughs in bioconjugation chemistry.

Areas of Research Interest and Expertise: Biomimetic Chemistry, Bioconjugation Chemistry, Molecular Imaging, Bioorthogonal Chemistry, Synthetic Biology

Neal K. Devaraj


Postdoctoral Fellow, Harvard Medical School
PhD, Stanford University
BS, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Scientists have long marveled at how non-living materials, such as simple organic molecules, assembled to form the first primitive life forms. Dr. Devaraj’s transformative work on the synthesis of artificial cells has the potential to provide new insights into understanding the origins of life and gain ground on solving one of the greatest contemporary challenges of chemistry; can we synthesize life? Along the way, he has developed new tools for labeling biomolecules that are widely used by researchers and may one day be used in the clinic to treat and detect disease.

"When I observe a cell, I marvel at how such complex sets of molecules can assemble to form a living organism. As a chemist, I wonder, what is the minimal prerequisite chemistry from which biology can emerge? Motivated by this question, my lab is developing technologies to unveil the secrets of life’s origin while simultaneously improving our understanding of modern-day biochemistry."

Key Publications:

  1. S. C. Alexander, K. N. Busby, C. M. Cole, C. Y. Zhou, N. K. Devaraj. Site-Specific Covalent Labeling of RNA by Enzymatic Transglycosylation. JACS, 2015, 12756-12759.
  2. R. J. Brea, A. K. Rudd, N. K. Devaraj. Nonenzymatic biomimetic remodeling of phospholipids in synthetic liposomes. PNAS, 2016, 8589-8594.
  3. J. Yang, J. Seckute, C. M. Cole, N. K. Devaraj. Live-Cell Imaging of Cyclopropene Tags with Fluorogenic Tetrazine Cycloadditions. Angewandte Chem. Int. Ed., 2012, 7476-7479.
  4. M. D. Hardy, J. Yang, J. Selimkhanov, C. M. Cole, L. S. Tsimring, N. K. Devaraj. Self-reproducing catalyst drives repeated phospholipid synthesis and membrane growth. PNAS, 2015, 8187-8192.

Other Honors:

2018 Magomedov-Shcherbinina Memorial Prize, University of Rochester and Bausch & Lomb, Inc.
2017 ACS Award in Pure Chemistry, American Chemical Society
2016 National Fresenius Award, Phi Lambda Upsilon
2016 NIH Pathfinder Award, National Institutes of Health
2016 Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award, Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation
2013 NSF CAREER Award, National Science Foundation
2010 NIH Research Scientist Career Development Award, National Institutes of Health

In the Media:

Chemical & Engineering News, 90(18), April 30, 2012 “Streamlining Tetrazine Synthesis” Science and Technology News of the Week

Chemical & Engineering News, 92(44), November 03, 2014 “Chemical Ligation Builds Synthetic Lipid Membranes” Science and Technology Concentrates

Chemical & Engineering News, 93(16), April 16, 2015 “Technique Adds Proteins to Membranes at Specific Sites and Times” Science and Technology News of the Week

Huffington Post, January 25, 2012 “Artificial Cell Membrane Created in Lab”

redOrbit, June 22, 2015 “Synthetic membranes grow like living cells”

San Diego Union-Tribune, June 22, 2015 “Membranes grow like living cells”

Chemical & Engineering News94(30), July 25, 2016 “Synthetic cell membranes remodeled chemically

Chemical & Engineering News95(1), January 02, 2017 “ACS Award in Pure Chemistry and the National Fresenius Award: Neal K. Devaraj

Chemical & Engineering News95(15), April 10, 2017 “Getting GPCRs into liposomes

Inside Science News Service, January 26, 2017 “Made in California: Everlasting Cells