Three LAS teams to receive Signature Research Initiative funding

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Richard Honzatko

Three projects have been chosen for funding in the second year of the College of Liberal Arts and Science’s Signature Research Initiative at Iowa State University.

Liberal Arts and Sciences launched the major research initiative last year to encourage college faculty to develop and lead interdisciplinary, collaborative research projects. The principal investigators for the 2014 awards:

• Richard Honzatko, professor of biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology (BBMB), whose research group will work at the subcellular level with hopes of leading to new drugs to treat malaria;

Wallapak Tavanapong

• Wallapak Tavanapong, associate professor of computer science, whose research team will use "big data" to examine social science questions; and

• Yanhai Yin, associate professor of genetics, development and cell development, whose team will use a combination of scientific methods to better understand plant growth and response to plant stresses .

The college’s criteria for funding the Signature Research Initiative proposals included evaluation of the project’s potential to compete successfully for external funding, and its alignment with one or more of the LAS Signature Themes. Martin Spalding, associate dean for research and graduate studies for LAS, said innovative, forward-thinking research with a significant risk but a high funding potential, if successful, was especially encouraged.

Yanhai Yin

“We had three very strong research proposals that met the criteria of the research initiative,” he said. "We’re pleased with the potential of each of these creative projects."

The initiative is to enhance the international visibility and impact of LAS-led research, and to increase the college’s sponsored research expenditures, which is a university priority, Spalding said.

LAS announced its five Signature Research Themes in early 2013: biological structures and systems; complex materials; data-rich environments; economic, environmental and societal sustainability; and global citizens, education and technology. Later in the year, five projects received the first Signature Research Initiative awards.

This year’s Signature Research Initiative awards:

• “Molecular Characterization and Inhibitor Identification of Apicoplast DNA Replication” Three researchers from the Roy J. Carver Department of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology (BBMB) and two collaborators have embarked on a research effort that could result in new drugs to treat malaria.

"Malaria is endemic to an expanding geographical area that now encompasses 40 percent of the world population and results in 220 million illnesses annually," said Richard Honzatko, professor of BBMB. "Children under the age of five comprise the majority of the 700,000 deaths each year due to the disease."

The research team will focus on a subcellular compartment (the apicoplast) essential for the growth and reproduction of the microorganisms that cause malaria and related diseases. Proposed research includes investigations of structure and mechanisms of enzymes necessary for apicoplast reproduction and the screening of tens of thousands of small molecules to identify those that interfere with apicoplast reproductive enzymes.

Also on the team are Scott Nelson and Eric Underbakke, both assistant professors of BBMB, and Robert Kerns, University of Iowa, and Michael Riscoe, Oregon Health Sciences University.

• "Building Research Community in Computational Communication and Journalism and Political Informatics" Wallapak Tavanapong and three other computer science professors will join forces with a team of political science professors led by Dave Peterson and a team from the Greenlee School of Journalism and Mass Communication led by Gang Han for an interdisciplinary examination of new uses for "big data" to answer social science questions.

"Big data from social media, news and governmental websites bring exciting opportunities for social scientists to plumb new research questions," Tavanapong said, "such as how information is dispersed across state lines and from the individual level to virtual and physical communities."

The research seeks to develop key components for a new user-friendly computational platform, which includes new ways to mine data sources, store the derived data and query the data to answer social science questions.

Other members of the research team are Ying Cai, Johnny Wong and Wensheng Zhang from computer science; Michael Bugeja, Michael Dahlstrom, Daniela Dimitrova and Jay Newell from the Greenlee School; and David Andersen, Tessa Ditonto and Mack Shelley from political science.

• “Structural, Metabolic Profiling and Genomic Approaches to Understand Plant Growth and Stress Responses” Yanhai Yin’s team of researchers will use a combination of scientific methods including X-ray crystallography, metabolic profiling and genetic approaches to better understand plant growth and plant responses to various stresses. The goal is to help increase crop production and improve plant health.

Yin had earlier discovered a previously unknown pathway in plant cells that plays essential roles in plant growth and plant defense response against bacterial pathogens.

"Increasing crop production, especially under adverse climate conditions, has become one of the major challenges of our time due to ever-growing population but dwindling productive farmland," said Yin. "Understanding plant growth and plant responses to various stresses will be crucial to meet the challenge."

Joining Yin on this project are Young Jin Lee, assistant professor of chemistry, and Edward Yu, Corbett Professor of Chemistry and professor of physics. -30-

About Liberal Arts and Sciences The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is a world-class learning and research community. Iowa State’s most academically diverse college, LAS educates students to become global citizens, providing rigorous academic programs in the sciences, humanities and social sciences within a supportive personalized learning environment. College faculty design new materials, unravel biological structures, care for the environment, and explore social and behavioral issues. From fundamental research to technology transfer and artistic expression, the college supports people in its community and around the world.

NEWS RELEASE College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Iowa State University Contacts: Steve Jones, Liberal Arts and Sciences Communications, (515) 294-0461,