Understanding biomolecules

The initiative in Biomolecular Structure will enable Iowa State to become a leader in this highly specialized field


Understanding the most elemental functions of cells holds the promise for making some of the greatest leaps forward in science – with the potential for new discoveries across all areas of human, plant, and animal life. And now, thanks to a $7.5 million commitment by the Muscatine, Iowa-based Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust, Iowa State University is poised to lead this research.

The Initiative in Biomolecular Structure in the newly named Roy J. Carver Department of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology (BBMB) will enable Iowa State to build its research focus in the proteins and protein complexes integral to cellular and physiological processes. The trust’s gift provides for hiring topflight new faculty and attracting the very best graduate students nationally and abroad, and for acquiring some of the most cutting-edge laboratory instrumentation used in this area of study.

According to Amy Andreotti, director of the initiative, and department chair Guru Rao – both of whom hold the title of Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust Professor in Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology – the initiative creates an exciting framework for identifying new solutions to challenges in areas ranging from medical and pharmaceutical science, to plant and animal health and insect control, to food and nutrition, to bioenergy and biomaterials.

Why is understanding the structure and function of biomolecules – and particularly proteins – important?
Amy Andreotti:
Every form of life is made up of biological molecules carrying out very specific functions within cells. They are like machines, working together to keep cells in living organisms – human, animal, or plant – healthy. At the next level down are the parts within the machines: biomolecules with specific shapes and chemical capabilities that enable them to perform all the cellular functions over the course of an organism’s lifetime – fighting off infections, creating energy, you name it.

Guru Rao: We’re interested in proteins because they do almost all of the work in the cell. And when we find errors in individual genes, they’re ultimately reflected in a protein – an alteration to its shape leading to a malfunction in the protein doing its job. So knowing the structure of the protein gives us a good handle on how to treat a particular property associated with it. For instance, if a disease is caused by a malfunctioning protein, we can tailor a therapy to specifically target the individual protein, potentially controlling that disease state.

How will the Carver Trust’s gift help advance this research?
AA: Biomolecular research is already occurring across the campus. [BBMB is co-administered by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.] The Initiative in Biomolecular Structure will enable Iowa State to hone its expertise in structural biology from the aspect of protein structure and function, and to expand the university’s capabilities as we bring in new faculty with new expertise in new technologies.

GR: The department already has an outstanding culture and track record for research, and we expect that only to grow through this initiative. Most BBMB faculty – many who have received three-year seed grants from the Carver Trust – are successfully competing for funding from governmental sources such as the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation.

AA: And with great faculty come great students. The initiative gives us the ability to recruit the best graduate students with an interest in biochemistry and specifically in structural biology. We’ve also had a strong undergraduate research experience in our laboratories for years, and more than three quarters of our graduates go on to graduate school or medical school. The quality of these students, too, just adds to the reputation of the program.

GR: The culture of excellence we’ve built in BBMB will only continue to rise. We have every reason to anticipate that in the next five to 10 years Iowa State will be the destination for structural biology education and research among leading programs around the country.

The importance of graduate students
Graduate students are essential to the research enterprise at Iowa State University. Experiences in the laboratories across campus foster students’ originality, imagination, judgment, and patience – the traits of an independent scholar. Private support is essential to recruit the graduate students on whom Iowa State depends to assist with teaching and collaborate with faculty to generate new knowledge. Fellowships, scholarships, and other funds for graduate students do more than impact their education while at Iowa State. These students become not only renowned scientists but also entrepreneurs, academics, policymakers, and leaders in their respective fields. Their discoveries and knowledge have incalculable potential for transforming the lives of thousands of people.

Learn more about how you can move Iowa State graduate students forward at http://www.foundation.iastate.edu.

About this story | Originally published in the winter 2013 issue of VISIONS magazine.


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