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.




β-Turn Sequences Promote Stability

A strategy to extend the lifetime of a peptide-based substrate for Abl kinase in the cytosolic environment has been developed in a collaboration between the Allbritton and Waters groups. As described in an article published in the journal Analyst, small β-turn structures were added to the peptide's N-terminus to block entry into peptidase catalytic sites. The influence of the size of the β-turn and two covalent cross-linking strategies on the rate of hydrolysis was assessed.

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The most peptidase-resistant substrate was degraded at a rate of 0.6 pmol mg−1 s−1 and possessed a half-life of 20.3 ± 1.7 min in a Baf/BCR-ABL cytosolic lysate, representing 16- and 40-fold improvements, respectively, over that of a control peptide lacking the β-turn structure. Furthermore, the kcat/KM value of this peptide was 432 μM−1 min−1, a 1.25× increase over the unmodified control, verifying that the added β-turn did not hinder the substrate properties of the peptide. This improved peptide was microinjected into single Baf/BCR-ABL cells and substrate phosphorylation measured. Zero to forty percent of the peptide was phosphorylated in the single cells. In contrast, when the control peptide without a β-turn was loaded into cells, the peptide was too rapidly degraded to detect phosphorylation. This work demonstrates that small β-turn structures can render peptides more resistant to hydrolysis while retaining substrate efficacy and shows that these stabilized peptides have the potential to be of high utility in single-cell enzyme assays.


Design of Light-Activatable Bioagents

As described in Angewandte Chemie, lipidated light-responsive constructs that sequester bioagents to the membranes of organelles and cells have been constructed in a collaboration between the Allbritton and Lawrence groups.

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When membrane-bound, the bioagent is not susceptible to processing by its biological target. Photolysis releases the bioagent from its membrane anchor and thereby renders it biologically active.


Representative Publications

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.

β-Turn Sequences Promote Stability of Peptide Substrates for Kinases Within the Cytosolic Environment. Shan Yang, Angela Proctor, Lauren L. Cline, Kaiulani M. Houston, Marcey L. Waters and Nancy L. Allbritton. Analyst, 2013,138, 4305-4311.