Knight, Lin receive research award on cell function, or malfunction

By Staff

University of Colorado Denver Department of Chemistry colleagues Jefferson Knight, assistant professor, and Hai Lin, associate professor, have received a multi-investigator Cottrell College Science Award from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement.

Knight and Lin are researching the subtle differences in how two similar proteins “dock,” or attach themselves to cell membranes. The proteins under investigation are called “synaptotagmins,” based on their functions in synapses, the communication junctions between brain cells.

Protein molecules are composed of strings of amino acids in tremendous varieties of sequences and forms, and participate in nearly all aspects of life at the cellular level. Studying how proteins inside a cell interact with the cell’s membrane, or outer “skin,” is one important key to understanding protein function. Proteins affect how the cell functions, or in the cases of disease such as cystic fibrosis, how it malfunctions.

The award is meant to fund research that will build teams of students and faculty that cross traditional disciplinary and department boundaries as well as promote basic research as a vital component of undergraduate education at the nation’s public and private small colleges and universities.

Knight, Lin and their students will perform experiments to identify the key amino acid residues contributing to electrostatic and hydrophobic interactions. Using modeling techniques, they will measure and compare the structures of the two protein molecules, and then they will employ computer simulations to theoretically alter the molecules’ shapes to see how these changes affect docking preferences.

The researchers said they hope their work will lead to better membrane-targeted drugs. (Roughly 50 percent of all modern medicinal drugs are targeted to the proteins composing our cells’ membranes.)

During the past 15 years, the Cottrell College Science Awards, which are reviewed by a panel of top scientists, have supported the research work of more than 1,500 early career scientists at 400 institutions.