Proof Points: College of Science
OSU scientists are studying molecular dynamics and creating new materials that will allow technological innovation and economic opportunity in energy, communications, and drug development.
- Scientists who study the large molecules of life from proteins to DNA will now be able to gain a sharper view and new understanding of the molecules that drive processes in biology, medical diagnostics, nanotechnology and other fields.
Biophysicist Andy Karplus and his colleague Kay Diederichs have now proven that useful information can be gleaned from data that have about five times the noise level that was previously considered acceptable in the use of x-rays to reveal shape and structures of DNA, proteins, minerals and other molecules.
While the method will be an important step for x-ray crystallographers, the scientists said the other physical sciences may also find ways to benefit from this type of data quality analysis. They noted that one branch of science has been using this type of statistical analysis for many years. The field of psychometrics – the analysis of data from psychological tests – has used a similar technique called the “Spearman-Brown prophecy formula” to determine the minimum length of such tests.
Researchers have tapped into the extraordinary power of carbon “nanotubes” to increase the speed of biological sensors, a technology that might one day allow a doctor to routinely perform lab tests in minutes, speeding diagnosis and treatment while reducing costs.
“With these types of sensors, it should be possible to do many medical lab tests in minutes, allowing the doctor to make a diagnosis during a single office visit,” said Ethan Minot, an assistant professor of physics. “Many existing tests take days, cost quite a bit and require trained laboratory technicians.”
OSU research suggests ways of reducing uncertainty concerning environmental impact on our oceans.
- It was only two decades ago that Stephen Giovannoni, a professor of microbiology, discovered SAR11, an ocean microbe and the smallest free-living cell known, but one that is now understood to dominate life in the oceans, thrives where most other cells would die and plays a huge role in carbon cycling on Earth.
Microbial action also surprised scientists just recently, Giovannoni noted, when specific microbe populations surged following the Gulf coast oil spill and cleaned up much of the oil faster than many thought possible. Some plans to ‘fertilize’ the ocean and sequester atmospheric carbon through marine phytoplankton growth have been put on hold, he said, because it just isn’t certain what would happen.
To reduce that uncertainty, Giovannoni advocates more aggressive development and implementation of marine microbial monitoring technology around the world, to add to what scientists can already learn from study of satellite images. The field is so new, he said, that many researchers are not even comparing the same types of data or standardizing the tools they use to assess microbial diversity – a problem that needs to be addressed.
Dramatic advances in DNA sequencing in recent years, Giovannoni said, should also help researchers unravel the ocean microbe mystery.
OSU researchers in the College of Science are providing new insights into biomedicine, understanding biological processes, toxicology, aging and nutrition.
- A focus of biomedical research at OSU is the Linus Pauling Institute, named after the university’s famous alumnus, a recognized peace proponent and the father of orthomolecular medicine. Pauling, the only person to ever win two unshared Nobel Prizes, received the first for his pioneering work on the nature of the chemical bond, and the second for his leadership to ban nuclear weapons testing in the 1950s and 60s. Later in life he became involved in the role of vitamins and micronutrients in optimal health, a mission still carried on today at OSU by the Linus Pauling Institute.
- Other advances are being made in the Linus Pauling Institute. New research has discovered that curcumin, a compound found in the cooking spice turmeric, can cause a modest but measurable increase in levels of a protein that is known to be important to the ‘innate’ immune system, helping to prevent infection in humans and other animals. Adrian Gombart, an associate professor of biochemistry and biophysics adds, “It’s interesting and somewhat surprising that curcumin can do that, and could provide another tool to develop medical therapies.”
- Chemists at OSU have discovered a less costly, more efficient way to make “biaryl” compounds used in liquid crystal displays, computer monitors and even therapeutic drugs. Using the method, the researchers have already produced siamenol, an agent being studied as a possible AIDS drug.
- A new study has shown that boosting the estrogen levels of male garter snakes causes them to secrete the same pheromones that females use to attract suitors. This experiment in the famed garter snake caverns of Manitoba, Canada, was one of the first in a field setting to ever quantify the effects of estrogen as a stimulant of pheromones, scientists said. Robert Mason, a professor of zoology and one of the world’s leading experts on reptilian pheromones, said that the results were surprisingly compelling. This estrogen is the same exact chemical found in many animal species, ranging from snakes to amphibians, fish, mammals and humans. The research confirms once again the unusually powerful role that estrogen can play in biology, and is also relevant to widespread concern about the environmental impact of compounds that mimic the effect of estrogen, found in some chemicals and pesticides.