Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
Penn State Science
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C. Denise Okafor

C. Denise Okafor

Main Content

  • Assistant Professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology
107 Althouse Laboratory
University Park, PA 16802
Phone: (814) 865-5497




  • B.S. Oral Roberts University, 2007
  • M.S. Georgia Institute of Technology, 2010
  • Ph.D. Georgia Institute of Technology, 2015
  • Postdoctoral Fellow, Emory University School of Medicine, 2015-2019


Research summary

We investigate structural mechanisms of signaling and regulation in protein complexes. We use MD simulations to determine how conformational dynamics of proteins are altered in different functional states. A broad range of biochemical and structural techniques are also employed. Combined, these allow us to carefully elucidate molecular mechanisms that govern the regulation of protein function. By understanding how proteins are regulated endogenously, we aim to identify novel strategies to selectively modulate protein function. Nuclear receptors are one of our favorite classes of molecules to study, because of the fascinatingly complex but elegant allosteric regulatory mechanisms that drive their function. They also play critical roles in metabolism, development, reproduction and other biological processes, which make them highly attractive therapeutic targets.

Selected Publications

  1. Okafor, C.D.; Colucci, J.K.; and Ortlund E.A. Ligand-Induced Allosteric Effects Governing SR Signaling. Nuclear Receptor Research 2019, 6.
  2. Frank, F.F.; Okafor, C.D.; and Ortlund E.A. The first crystal structure of a DNA-free nuclear receptor DNA binding domain sheds light on DNA-driven allostery in the glucocorticoid receptor. Scientific Reports 2018, 8(1), 13497.
  3. Okafor, C.D.; Pathak, M.F.; Fagan, C.E.; Bauer, N.C.; Cole, M.F.; Gaucher, E.A.; and Ortlund, E.A. Structural Analyses of Ancient, Modern and Consensus Elongation Factor TU proteins Reveal Strategies for Engineering Thermostability. Structure 2018, 26(1), 118-129.
  4. Mays, S.G.; Okafor, C.D.; Tuntland, M.L.; Whitby, R.J.; Dharmajan, V.; Stec, J.; Griffin, P.R.; Ortlund, E.A. Structure and Dynamics of the Liver Receptor Homolog 1-PGC1a Complex. Mol Pharmacol. 2017, 92(1), 1-11.
  5. Weikum, E.R.; Okafor, C.D.; D’Agostino, E.H.; Colucci, J.C.; and Ortlund, E.A. Structural Analysis of the Glucocorticoid Receptor Ligand-Binding Domain in Complex with Triamcinolone Acetonide and a Fragment of the Atypical Coregulator, Small Heterodimer Partner. Mol. Pharmacol. 2017, 92(1), 12-21.
  6. Okafor, C.D.; Lanier, K.A.; Petrov, A.S.; Athavale, S.S.; Bowman, J.C.; Hud, N.V.; and Williams, L.D. Iron Mediates Catalysis of Nucleic Acid Processing Enzymes: Support for Fe(II) as a Cofactor before the Great Oxidation Event. Nucleic Acids Res. 2017, 45, 3634-3642
  7. Mays, S.G.; Okafor, C.D.; Whitby, R.J.; Goswami, D.; Stec, J.; Flynn, A.; Dugan, M.; Griffin, P.R.; Jui, N.; Ortlund, E.A. Crystal Structures of the Nuclear Receptor, Liver Receptor Homolog 1, Bound to Synthetic Agonists Reveal a Novel Mechanism of Receptor Activation. J. Biol Chem, 2016, 291(49). 25281-25291

Honors and Awards

  • Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award at the Scientific Interface, 2018-2023
  • Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship, 2018 (declined)
  • Protein Society Hans Neurath Outstanding promise Travel Award, 2018
  • NIH-IRACDA Postdoctoral Fellow, 2015-2018