Science Faculty Win Presitigious NIH Grants

Two science faculty members received major research grants from the National Institutes of Health. One allows collaboration with Scripps Research Institute and Stanford University.

Amanda Reig, assistant professor of Chemistry, was awarded $221,844 through the Academic Research Enhancement Award program over three years to support efforts to understand how specific structural elements in iron-containing proteins contribute to the control of chemical function.

“Binuclear non-heme iron enzymes are particularly interesting targets for the study of structure-function relationships as their active sites often look very similar, but the proteins can carry out very different chemical reactions,” she said. “Scientists have been working hard to understand how nature is able to tune an enzyme’s function so precisely using only the 20 naturally occurring amino acids.”

The research in Dr. Reig’s lab takes unique approach to address this question, with a computationally-designed model system that allows students to systematically change one amino acid at a time and then study how that change affects the ability of the protein to bind iron, activate oxygen, and react with small molecule substrates. “By understanding these effects at a molecular level, we may one day be able to reverse engineer proteins to catalyze chemical reactions of our choosing,” she said.  

As part of the grant, Dr. Daniel Kulp, a senior scientist at Scripps, will visit Ursinus next semester to speak and lead a workshop on computational protein design methods, and Dr. Reig will accompany her research students to Stanford University in the summer for one week to conduct detailed spectroscopic studies of the iron-containing active sites in their proteins with the help of graduate students in the laboratory of Dr. Edward Solomon.

Rebecca Lyczak, associate professor of biology, received a grant of $254,921 over three years, also through the Academic Research Enhancement Award program, for a project titled, “Identification of new regulators of centrosome positioning in C. elegans axis polarization.”

During development of diverse organisms, many cells become polarized as part of the differentiation process, she explained. “One example of this event occurs in the one-cell C. elegans embryo, a process that establishes the anterior-posterior (AP) body axis. In many cell types, this polarization event is cued by the centrosome, the microtubule organizing center of the cell. Despite much work implicating the centrosome, little is known about how it is positioned in the cell to ensure polarity establishment.”

The proposed work seeks to isolate, characterize and identify suppressors of pam-1 in C. elegans. PAM-1 protein is similar to PSA proteins in other organisms, including humans. Given the implication of PSAs in neurodegeneration, identification of targets in C. elegans may also advance the understanding of disease mechanisms. Additionally, new players in centrosome positioning will be identified which may be applicable to other systems.The proposed experiments will be largely carried out by undergraduates who will be mentored to provide them the guidance and expertise needed for success in science careers and graduate work.

The grant will fund research with undergraduates through the academic year and two summer research students per year.