FORT COLLINS--Karolin Luger will spend the next three years seeking a three-dimensional image of how a two-yard-long strand of DNA can be folded into a tiny package inside a cell nucleus.
DNA, the double helix of amino acids that constitutes the blueprint of all life, has to be "naked" at certain points along its microscopic strand in order for proteins to use it to replicate body cells.
"All the information for every living cell is stored in DNA, which is like a long computer tape," Luger said. "The nucleus of every human cell has a two-meter strand of DNA in a compartment one one-thousandth of a millimeter around.
"You can't just ball the strand up and stuff it in there, because the cell needs access to the information that is stored on the strand at various times."
Luger, an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Colorado State University, will pursue her research as one of 15 people in the country named to the 1999 Searle Scholars Program. The Searle program supports the research careers of junior faculty with outstanding potential and will provide $60,000 each year to enable Luger to get her project underway.
Luger, who earned a doctorate in biochemistry and biophysics with honors from the University of Basel in Switzerland, wrote her thesis on how proteins can fold themselves inside cells and will bring this background to her current task.
For example, Luger said when a new liver cell is to be fashioned, the information that is necessary for this process must come from a region perhaps 1.5 meters along the DNA strand. The information needed for the formation of a new corneal cell for the eye might be encoded in another region--say, 1.34 meters along the DNA strand. The question for science is how the proteins known as transcription factors can find the appropriate segments of DNA amid the tangle.