The shape of things to come

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LAS and other ISU structural biologists seek solutions to challenges facing human, animal and plant life.

Will a new drug help a patient feel better? To answer this question, scientists in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and their colleagues at Iowa State University and elsewhere turn to structural biology.

For a drug to be effective, the molecules making up its active ingredient and their target molecules in the body need to fit together like lock and key. The three-dimensional shape of these molecules – their structure – plays a critical role in determining their function. In addition to drug development, a better understanding of the complex structure of biomolecules is also essential for many other discoveries in wide-ranging areas important to human, plant and animal life.

Iowa State’s structural biology group is exceptionally strong, benefitting from the presence of an excellent College of Veterinary Medicine. "Structural biology is a very important part of how biology is going to advance," said David Oliver, interim vice president of research and economic development and an ISU biology professor.

With competitive funding from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and private support from the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust and others organizations , researchers tackle challenges in areas such as pharmaceuticals, animal and plant health, insect control and bioenergy. $7.5 million Carver gift In 2011, Iowa State and the Carver Charitable Trust, of Muscatine, Iowa, announced a $7.5 million award by the Carver Charitable Trust, of Muscatine, Iowa, to ISU’s Department of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology (BBMB) support strategic research initiatives in biomolecular structure in the Department of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology (BBMB). The department has been renamed BBMB is now named in honor of the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust, in recognition of the trust’s gifts and commitments to the department of more than $12.3 million.

"Iowa State has a strong interest and expertise in biomolecular structure across campus," said Beate Schmittmann, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. "The Carver Trust’s initiative is very timely and will provide us with the resources to attract additional top faculty and graduate students, and equip our laboratories with state-of-the-art instrumentation.”

The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences jointly administer BBMB. In support of the Carver Trust gift, both colleges are making large investments in the department’s research programs, with specific emphasis on structural biology. “This is a unique opportunity to raise our research profile in this critically important interdisciplinary field to a new level of prominence," Schmittmann added.

Amy Andreotti and Guru Rao

Carver Charitable Trust funds have created two three endowed professorships in BBMB. Professor and initiative director Amy Andreotti and Professor Guru Rao – who also serves as the department chair – both now hold the title of Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust Professor in BBMB, with a national search under way for the third position. Each is a gifted scientist working with biomolecular structures.

"All of life is driven by biomolecular systems," said Andreotti. "Structural biology is studying these systems at the atomic level and generating models for the shape and features that are important and allow these molecules to carry out their prescribed functions." A more beneficial function Rao said modern research techniques such as nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy and x-ray crystallography have allowed scientists to peer deep into living cells. They can now determine the three-dimensional shape, or structure, of proteins and enzymes, which Rao calls the "business end" of what makes us all function.

"Now we know what the proteins look like," Rao said. Based on its shape, he added, researchers are able to predict what a protein can do and how it might be changed so that it could perform a completely different and more beneficial function.

Rao sees Iowa State’s structural biology expertise growing to unprecedented levels and competing for the best students and faculty. "We are recognized through our faculty and our research for being right at the cutting edge. We’re taking biochemistry to a level that is very competitive with what is going on in the field at other universities.

"We’re very good."