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OSU research may help scientists track slow-moving proteins

Special to the Legal News

Published: October 4, 2019

Movement by proteins is essential to their proper function. Scientists, however, have great difficulty tracking protein movement slower than a nanosecond.

Ohio State University research published recently in Science Advances provides scientists with a method to complete measurements at speeds of hundreds of nanoseconds to microseconds.

"We know very little about what proteins do on timescales into the microseconds," said Rafael Bruschweiler, Ohio Research Scholar and professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Ohio State. "Traditional experiments provide very little information, because the way we test proteins now loses sensitivity at those speeds - there is a window, depending on how fast a protein is moving, at which we cannot see what the protein is doing and how it is behaving.

"Our goal here was to open up this window. To come up with a tool to measure how proteins function on these timescales that we have not been able to watch before."

Bruschweiler has been working on ways to better study proteins for decades, starting when he was a graduate student in Switzerland, according to a university press release. He and his research group - a team of biophysical chemists at Ohio State - focus on nuclear magnetic resonance, a tool that helps understand how proteins behave in the body.

For this discovery, the researchers added nanoparticles - silica, or glass - to a solution containing water and proteins, and used the NMR to see how the proteins responded.

The proteins bonded to the silica, making them all of a sudden visible to scientists analyzing their movements, the press release detailed.

"It's a bit like if you have a telescope, and you look at the visible light from the stars," Bruschweiler said. "Now you have an infrared detector, so you can look for the infrared light that we cannot see with the naked eye. It provides a whole new window of information."

The additional information is the building block of science, allowing researchers who study proteins to ask deeper, better questions.

"This will help us look at a protein and ask, how does it behave? What happens when it interacts with another protein or a drug?" Bruschweiler said. "That's the type of information we need in order to understand the function of these proteins. Each protein has its own function in the body, and with this new tool, we get a glimpse of what they are actually doing and start to better understand why."

His lab had begun experiments that worked on nanoparticles in biofluids––urine, cell extracts, serum––and he started to wonder if the nanoparticles which, though very small, are larger than proteins could help make dynamic protein behavior visible to scientists. And it worked.

"Science really deals with these unpredictable things that no one saw coming," he said. "That's what this is."

Other Ohio State researchers who were part of this study include Mouzhe Xie, Lei Yu, Lei Bruschweiler-Li, Xinyao Xiang and Alexander Hansen. The work was funded by the National Science Foundation.

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