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Improving Technique to ID Protein Function

The Human Genome Project that sequenced human DNA was such a rousing success that scientists now have more than 6.5 million proteins to study. Determining the role each protein plays and which are important to diseases is a daunting challenge. It can take years, even decades, to understand the role of a single protein.

Photo of Robert Powers

Robert Powers, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has developed a new method for quickly determining protein function that could speed the process of finding treatments for many human diseases. He received a two-year, $375,670 grant from the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to improve his method.

"This approach provides initial insight into the function of a large number of proteins with the hope that a subset of those will turn into novel therapeutic targets for drugs," Powers said.

One clue to a protein's function lies in its ligands, molecules that bind to the protein. By comparing the ligands of an unknown protein with those of known proteins, Powers can determine the protein's function.

He first uses nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy and a library of ligands to determine which ones interact with the unknown protein. Then, he compares that information using a database of 35,000 known proteins. When he finds a match, it's a good bet that the proteins share a common function, even if their structures differ.

This method, Functional Annotation Screening Technology by NMR, or FAST-NMR, is a unique approach because it combines protein structure biology, ligand affinity screening and bioinformatics into one process.

By perfecting FAST-NMR, Powers will be able to analyze hundreds of proteins quickly, giving his lab and other researchers many new proteins of known function to investigate.

ARRA funding allowed Powers to purchase equipment needed to speed up the technique and prove it works on a large scale. "We're gathering a lot of data," he said, "quicker than we can analyze it all."

To help him, Powers has hired two new graduate and two undergraduate students using ARRA funding.

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