Troy, N.Y. -- Using powerful computers to model the intricate dance of atoms and molecules, researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have revealed the mechanism behind an important biological reaction. In collaboration with scientists from the Wadsworth Center of the New York State Department of Health, the team is working to harness the reaction to develop a "nanoswitch" for a variety of applications, from targeted drug delivery to genomics and proteomics to sensors.
The research is part of a burgeoning discipline called "quantum biology," which taps the skyrocketing power of today's high-performance computers to precisely model complex biological processes. The secret is quantum mechanics -- the much-touted theory from physics that explains the inherent "weirdness" of the atomic realm.
Reporting in the February 2007 issue of Biophysical Journal, the researchers describe a mechanism to explain how an intein -- a type of protein found in single-celled organisms and bacteria -- cuts itself out of the host protein and reconnects the two remaining strands. The intein breaks a protein sequence at two points: first the N-terminal, and then the C-terminal. This aspect of the project, which is led by Saroj Nayak, associate professor of physics, applied physics, and astronomy at Rensselaer, focuses on the C-terminal reaction.
Another Rensselaer team previously found that the reaction at the C-terminal speeds up in acidic environments. But to control the reaction and use it as a nanoswitch, a better understanding of the mechanism behind this reaction is needed, according to Philip Shemella, a doctoral student in physics at Rensselaer and corresponding author of the current paper.
"You can use this protein that cuts itself and joins the pieces together in a predictable way," he said. "It already has a function that would be nice to harness for nanotechnology purposes." And because the reaction may be sensitive to light and o
Contact: Jason Gorss
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute