Department of Chemistry

Biochemistry & Chemical Biology

Research ImageGraduate students in biochemistry and chemical biology meld molecular and structural biology with physical, organic and analytical chemistry to understand the molecular basis of biological processes and of human disease. Research in the Biochemistry and Chemical Biology Division focuses on the structure and function of proteins, membranes, DNA, RNA, large macromolecular complexes and viruses, natural product biogenesis, synthetic biology, and genomics.

Students are a constant source of new hypotheses for mechanisms underlying cellular machines like the ribosome and spliceosome, and for the protein and RNA folding problems. Students tackle these problems using biochemical methods, chemical biosensor technologies, protein and nucleic acid crystallography, in vitro and in vivo evolution, multi-dimensional NMR spectroscopy, surface chemistry, atomic force microscopy, fluorescence spectroscopy, and high-resolution mass spectrometry.

Doctoral students in Biochemistry and Chemical Biology leave the Department broadly trained for leadership roles in academia and industry.




In-Cell RNA Structure

Large biological molecules, including RNA, likely sample complex structures in cells, but we mostly have no idea because there is very little direct information regarding in-cell structure. Jennifer McGinnis in the Weeks Group used nucleotide resolution SHAPE chemistry to probe ribosome RNA structure in healthy growing bacterial cells. The RNA conformational ensemble in dividing cells was quite different from that based on static studies of purified ribosomes.

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Jennifer identified the major cause of these differences by stopping ongoing in-cell transcription —an in-cell RNA structure pulse-chase experiment!— which caused the RNA to chase to a structure that closely resembled the expected static one. Her work emphasizes that the final stages of ribosome assembly involve large-scale RNA conformational changes and that there are extensive differences between RNA structures as studied in test-tube experiments versus in the native cellular environment.


Protein Crowder Charge and Stability

Macromolecular crowding effects arise from steric repulsions and weak, nonspecific, chemical interactions. Steric repulsions stabilize globular proteins, but the effect of chemical interactions depends on their nature. Repulsive interactions such as those between similarly charged species should reinforce the effect of steric repulsions, increasing the equilibrium thermodynamic stability of a test protein. Attractive chemical interactions, on the other hand, counteract the effect of hard-core repulsions, decreasing stability.

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Mohona Sarkar and Joe Lu, researchers in the Pielak Group, tested these ideas, published in Biochemistry, by using the anionic proteins from Escherichia coli as crowding agents and assessing the stability of the anionic test protein chymotrypsin inhibitor 2 at pH 7.0. The anionic protein crowders destabilize the test protein despite the similarity of their net charges. Thus, weak, nonspecific, attractive interactions between proteins can overcome the charge–charge repulsion and counterbalance the stabilizing effect of steric repulsion.


Representative Publications

RNA Motif Discovery by SHAPE and Mutational Profiling (SHAPE-MaP). Nathan A Siegfried, Steven Busan, Greggory M Rice, Julie A E Nelson & Kevin M Weeks. Nature Methods 11, 959–965 (2014).

Residue Level Quantification of Protein Stability in Living Cells. William B. Monteith and Gary J. Pielak. PNAS July 21, 2014, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1406845111 .

Nitric Oxide-Releasing Quaternary Ammonium-Modified Poly(amidoamine) Dendrimers as Dual Action Antibacterial Agents. Brittany V. Worley , Danielle L. Slomberg , and Mark H. Schoenfisch. Bioconjugate Chem., 2014, 25 (5), pp 918–927.

Protein Crowder Charge and Protein Stability. Mohona Sarkar, Joe Lu, and Gary Pielak. Biochemistry, 2014, 53 (10), pp 1601–1606.

Strategies for Protein NMR in Escherichia coli. Guohua Xu, Yansheng Ye, Xiaoli Liu, Shufen Cao, Qiong Wu, Kai Cheng, Maili Liu, Gary J. Pielak, and Conggang Li. Biochemistry, 2014, 53 (12), pp 1971–1981.

Long-Wavelength Fluorescent Reporters for Monitoring Protein Kinase Activity. Nathan P. Oien, Luong T. Nguyen, Dr. Finith E. Jernigan, Prof. Melanie A. Priestman and Prof. David S. Lawrence. Article first published online: 6 MAR 2014, DOI: 10.1002/anie.201309691.

Low Copy Numbers of DC-SIGN in Cell Membrane Microdomains: Implications for Structure and Function. Ping Liu, Xiang Wang, Michelle S. Itano, Aaron K. Neumann, Aravinda M. de Silva, Ken Jacobson, Nancy L. Thompson. Traffic, Volume 15, Issue 2, pages 179–196, February 2014.

The Cellular Environment Stabilizes Adenine Riboswitch RNA Structure. Jillian Tyrrell, Jennifer L. McGinnis, Kevin M. Weeks, and Gary J. Pielak . Biochemistry, Article ASAP, DOI: 10.1021/bi401207q.

Impact of Reconstituted Cytosol on Protein Stability. Mohona Sarkar, Austin E. Smith, and Gary J. Pielak. Published online before print, November 11, 2013, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1312678110 PNAS November 11, 2013.

Molecular Basis for pH-Dependent Mucosal Dehydration in Cystic Fibrosis Airways. Alaina L. Garlanda, William G. Waltonb, Raymond D. Coakley, Chong D. Tan, Rodney C. Gilmore, Carey A. Hobbs, Ashutosh Tripathy, Lucy A. Clunes, Sompop Bencharit, M. Jackson Stutts, Laurie Betts, Matthew R. Redinbo, and Robert Tarran. PNAS, September 16, 2013, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1311999110.