Scrimmage science: football images illustrate membrane protein interactions

April 10, 2008
Nancy Ross-Flanigan

ANN ARBOR—When is a biological membrane like a University of Michigan football game?

Always, if you ask associate professor of chemistry and biophysics and diehard football fan Ayyalusamy Ramamoorthy, who illustrates his lectures and scientific papers with maize-and-blue, gridiron-inspired images.

“Molecules in the membrane arena are entertainers,” Ramamoorthy said. “In their own way, they run, block, dodge and dance just like football players in a stadium.”

Ramamoorthy will present recent findings from his research on membrane proteins?along with some of his football-themed illustrations?at the 235th national meeting of the American Chemical Society in New Orleans April 6.

In one illustration, Ramamoorthy used a maize-and-blue uniformed player throwing footballs through a cylindrical structure to represent a membrane protein transporting ions, atoms, biological molecules and drugs through a channel in the membrane. In another, mirror images of a row of players on the sidelines depict the double layer of lipids that makes up a membrane.

Ramamoorthy’s images make his science more accessible and even entertaining, but all is not fun and games in his lab. Membrane proteins play vital roles in health and disease?battling bacteria, viruses and fungi, attacking cancer cells, breaking down drugs and toxins and performing other crucial functions?and the research is aimed at better understanding, at the atomic level, exactly how they behave.

“Membrane-associated proteins are involved in all major diseases, everywhere in the body, and are therefore primary targets for pharmaceutical applications,” Ramamoorthy said. Through atomistic imaging of these medically relevant molecules, he hopes to generate movies that will make observing molecular motion at nano- and picoscale levels as easy as watching a football game on TV.

In recent research, Ramamoorthy and collaborator Lucy Waskell, professor of anesthesiology and a physician at the Department of Veterans affairs Medical Center, used solid-state NMR spectroscopy to reveal important structural details of an enzyme system known as “Mother Nature’s blowtorch” for its role in helping the body break down many drugs and toxins.

Another line of research focuses on exploring the germ-killing and cancer-fighting properties of natural antibiotics called antimicrobial peptides (AMPs), which are produced by virtually all animals, from insects to frogs to humans.

Ramamoorthy also will discuss a project in which his research group is investigating how amyloid proteins, implicated in Type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease, cause cell death. While he is the coach, the quarterback for this project is Jeffrey Brender, a postdoctoral fellow in Ramamoorthy’s lab.

Ramamoorthy hopes his sports-themed illustrations will rally other scientists to this important area of research and help make the Michigan name synonymous with excellence in the field.

“The key terms are membranes, membranes, membranes and Michigan, Michigan, Michigan,” he said. “The number of researchers working on membranes at Michigan is increasing dramatically, with representation from a range of scientific disciplines and academic units?chemistry, biophysics, biological chemistry and the Life Sciences Institute. It’s a hot field, but a challenging field. One person alone cannot be successful; we need a combination of people with expertise in different areas working together.”

Research in Ramamoorthy’s lab is supported by funding from the National Institutes of Health, American Heart Association, the National Science Foundation and the U-M Office of the Vice President for Research. In addition to Waskell, Ramamoorthy’s current collaborators on membrane research, all at U-M, are Ari Gafni, professor of biological chemistry and of biophysics; Duncan Steel, who is the Robert J. Hiller Professor of Engineering and also has appointments in physics and biophysics; Robert T. Kennedy, the Hobart H. Willard Collegiate Professor of Chemistry and professor of pharmacology; Charles Shelburne, an assistant research scientist in the School of Dentistry; Mark Banaszak Holl, professor of chemistry and of macromolecular science and engineering; E. Neil Marsh, professor of chemistry and associate professor of biological chemistry; Ronald Larson, professor of macromolecular science and engineering, biomedical engineering and chemical engineering; James Baker, the Ruth Dow Doan Professor of Nanotechnology; Brad Orr, professor of physics; and Zhan Chen, associate professor of chemistry and of macromolecular science and engineering.


American Chemical Society

Previous news releases on Ramamoorthy’s research: Revealing the workings of ‘Mother Nature’s blowtorch’

Natural antibiotics yield secrets to atom-levelimaging technique