Professor Douglas A. Mitchell has been selected as the next John Witt Professor in Chemistry.
With key discoveries of natural molecules that have antibiotic properties, Mitchell is a rapidly rising star in chemistry, doing work that is important to humanity, which includes research addressing the rise in antibiotic resistance.
A faculty member in the Department of Chemistry since 2009, Mitchell is also a professor with the Institute for Genomic Biology and affiliated with the Department of Microbiology. His appointment to this professorship, effective Aug. 16, 2020, was reviewed and recommended by the department awards committee comprised of six faculty members.
The professorship was established by John Witt (PhD, ‘61, Snyder) and Margaret Witt in 2013. While working at the G.D. Searle pharmaceutical company in Chicago, a chemist discovered the sweetness of the compound aspartame—which the company named NutraSweet, and Witt was one of about a half dozen employees who started Searle’s NutraSweet division. After retiring from NutraSweet, Witt founded Witt Science Consulting, advising small pharmaceutical and venture capital firms in developing new drugs. In 2018, the Witts received the LAS Dean’s Quadrangle Award for their service and generosity to the college.
John Witt was pleased to hear of Mitchell’s appointment to the endowed professorship.
“The contributions that he and his research group have made are certainly significant. It is important that Chemistry at Illinois is able to continue to recruit, develop, and recognize that excellence,” Witt said. “As someone who spent my career in pharmaceutical and drug development, it is appreciated to participate in recognizing the achievements he has demonstrated at the chemistry/biology interface."
Mitchell is a mechanistic enzymologist at the forefront of the discovery of new natural products, more specifically, lasso peptides -- an unusual sequence of amino acids that forms a loop with its tail threaded through the loop like a lasso. Mitchell has discovered many of these lasso peptides, but his biosynthesis and bioengineering of them holds the potential to contribute to the development of stable peptides as drug leads. He has also developed a new computational discovery tool, Rapid Open-reading-frame Description and Evaluation Online (RODEO), which facilitates discovery of these natural products and is publicly available to other researchers. The Witt professorship will provide additional discretionary funds for Mitchell to turn his ideas into reality.
Martin Gruebele, head of the Department of Chemistry, said the Witts are wonderful people who have done so much for the department at every level, from the students to the faculty and beyond.
“Our Awards Committee was very pleased when a named position opened up and they were able to recommend Doug Mitchell, whose world-class work on lasso peptides and other medicinally important chemistry is not just changing existing fields, but creating new fields,” Gruebele said.
Mitchell said it is an incredible honor to be selected for this professorship.
“Having the flexibility to pursue new projects that are not yet externally supported is crucial to our ability to continue to innovate. We look forward to putting this new source of funding to optimal use,” he said.
Mitchell earned his undergraduate degree in chemistry from Carnegie Mellon University in 2002. After a short internship in medicinal chemistry at Merck Research Laboratories, he earned his doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley in 2006. He worked as a postdoctoral researcher with Jack Dixon at the University of California at San Diego before joining the Department of Chemistry at Illinois in 2009.