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Markelz receives $1.35 million to study molecules’ vibrations, opening new possibilities for an emerging field

From left: Andrea Markelz, UB professor of physics, with graduate students Mengyang Xu and Katherine Niessen. Credit: Douglas Levere

UB physicist is one of the world’s top experts in her research area

Release Date: December 15, 2016

Andrea Markelz. Credit: Douglas Levere

BUFFALO, N.Y. — In the same way that a church bell resonates after it’s struck, the molecules that comprise the world around us vibrate in specific patterns.  

These tiny tremors, invisible to the naked eye, support life: They enable proteins in the human body to change shape quickly, a necessity for performing critical biological functions. And in plants, the motions are thought to be involved in photosynthesis.

Research on molecular vibrations could open new avenues for drug development and artificial energy harvesting. But historically, these pulses and palpitations have been very hard to study.

University at Buffalo physicist Andrea Markelz is hoping to change that.

Markelz, PhD, a top expert in the field, has received three new grants totaling more than $1.35 million to probe the nature of protein vibrations and to develop instrumentation that will enable other researchers to do the same.

“What’s really exciting to me is that in nature, these vibrations — these protein dynamics — have been optimized to improve how organisms function,” Markelz says. “So what can we learn from nature, and how can we use the principles established by nature to develop new technologies?”

Markelz’ new funding — from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) — will support the following work:

 

Measuring the motion of photosynthesis proteins

Funding agency: DOE
Grant amount: $339,998
Project details: In this project, Markelz and her team will measure the vibrations of proteins involved in photosynthesis, the life-sustaining process that allows plants and some bacteria to convert sunlight into the chemical energy that fuels an organism’s day-to-day activities. The scientists will describe the vibrations of molecules that help shuttle energy from one part of an organism to another during photosynthesis, and analyze how these oscillations make photosynthesis more effective. The research could spur the development of organic solar cells that harvest sunlight efficiently.

Pinpointing the movements of important proteins

“What’s really exciting to me is that in nature, these vibrations — these protein dynamics — have been optimized to improve how organisms function.”
Andrea Markelz, professor of physics
University at Buffalo

Funding agency: NSF
Grant amount: $615,646
Project details: In this project, Markelz and partners will identify the motions of proteins that carry out vital biological functions. The team will look at photoactive yellow protein (PYP), which is thought to influence how photosynthesizing bacteria called cyanobacteria respond to light, and dihydrofolate reductase, which helps to regulate the levels of chemicals involved in cell growth and proliferation in various organisms. The project will examine how the motions of these molecules impact their function within organisms, providing information on how proteins can change their shape so efficiently — a crucial step toward developing pharmaceuticals that inhibit or take advantage of protein vibrations to treat disease.

Collaborators include researchers at the Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute; Oklahoma State University; the University of California, Santa Barbara; and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. This work was previously supported by UB seed funding for the National Science Foundation Biology with X-ray Free Electron Lasers (BioXFEL) Science and Technology Center, a national partnership between institutions that is headquartered at UB.

Creating a turnkey instrument for measuring molecular vibrations

Funding agency: NSF
Grant amount: $395,534
Project details: This funding will allow Markelz to develop an instrument that researchers around the world can use to measure the vibrations of proteins and other large molecules. She led a team that produced a terahertz microscope that is capable of making measurements that isolate specific vibrations, and her goal is to expand on this work by building an instrument with similar capabilities that is easier to replicate and maintain. While other methods exist to study molecular vibrations, these methods provide a coarse overview of the vibrations and require extremely dry and cold environments and expensive facilities.

The technique the Markelz group developed is called anisotropy terahertz microscopy (ATM), and it gives researchers the unprecedented ability to isolate vibrations moving in specific directions. The technique is table-top and is typically performed at room temperature. The method involves shining terahertz light on a molecule, then measuring the frequencies of light the molecule absorbs (this works because molecules vibrate at the same frequency as the light they absorb). The goal is to commercialize an easy-to-use ATM instrument, greatly expanding the capacity of the scientific community to conduct research on molecular vibrations.

This work was previously supported by the Bruce Holm Memorial Catalyst Fund at UB. UB’s Technology Transfer office has invested in patenting the technology and is now seeking an industry partner to commercialize the instrument. Currently, a patent application has been filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

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