When it comes to living organisms, it’s pretty much all about the proteins. Composed of strings of amino acids in tremendous varieties of sequences and forms, protein molecules participate in nearly all aspects of life at the cellular level. Studying how proteins inside a cell interact with the cell’s membrane, or outer “skin,” is one very important key to understanding protein function. By localizing to a particular cell membrane, proteins affect how the cell functions, or in the cases of disease such as cystic fibrosis, malfunctions.

For their work in this field CU Denver Department of Chemistry colleagues Jefferson Knight, Ph.D., assistant professor and Hai Lin, Ph.D., associate professor, have just received a Multi-Investigator Cottrell College Science Award from one of America’s oldest foundations, Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA).

Knight and Lin are attempting to understand the subtle differences in how two similar proteins “dock,” or attach themselves to cell membranes. The proteins under investigation are called “synaptotagmins,” based on their functions in synapses, the communication junctions between brain cells.

The award is meant to fund research that will build teams of students and faculty that cross traditional disciplinary and department boundaries, as well as to promote basic research as a vital component of undergraduate education at the nation’s public and private small colleges and universities.

With their RCSA grant Knight and Lin and their students will perform experiments to identify the key amino acid residues contributing to electrostatic and hydrophobic interactions. Using modeling techniques, they will measure and compare the structures of the two protein molecules, and then they will employ computer simulations to, theoretically at least, alter the molecules’ shapes to see how these changes affect their docking preferences.

The researchers said they hope their work will lead to better membrane-targeted drugs. (Roughly 50 percent of all modern medicinal drugs are targeted to the proteins composing our cells’ membranes.)

During the past 15 years, the Cottrell College Science Awards, which are carefully reviewed by a panel of top scientists, have supported the research work of more than 1,500 early career scientists in 400 institutions.

We hope these awards will help early career faculty to establish long-term, sustainable and productive cross-disciplinary research programs,” said RCSA Interim President Jack Pladziewicz. “We also hope that by encouraging student participation in these projects, many undergraduates will be encouraged to pursue careers in science and benefit by working as part of an interdisciplinary research team.”

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