The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a $1.03 million grant to a trio of California State University professors for a cutting-edge research project that will utilize a never-before-used technique to examine the activity of essential metallic elements in life processes.
Cal State Long Beach Professors Zed Mason and Roger Acey, and Cal State LA Professor Feimeng Zhou received the four-year grant from the NSF's Division of Collaborative Research for Undergraduate Institutions.
"Life has evolved to incorporate metals in bodily systems, and in fact, there are about 17 metallic elements that are absolutely essential to life. Without them, we would die," pointed out Mason, a biology professor. "The interesting paradox about these elements is that while they are essential, they can also be highly toxic.
"So, life has developed mechanisms by which it can not only accumulate and utilize these elements, but also store them in forms that are essentially non-toxic," he added. "With this project, we are developing a process that will allow us to look at that process directly, and as far as I am aware, we are currently the only research group that has the technology to study these biological processes."
According to Mason, nearly every cellular and metabolic process is regulated, either directly or indirectly, by the availability of metallic elements in the body. For example, cellular respiration is controlled by iron and copper while gene expression and pH balance are indirectly controlled by the availability of zinc.
To date, though, scientists have not been able to study the movement of metals from protein to protein because of the analytical complexities and the very small concentrations involved.
However, the trio's new technique will enable them to study the process in a quantitative way. This technique is called: in-line electrochemistry, two dimensional high-performance liquid chrometography, inductively coupled plasma mass spectroscopy.
Mason noted that while it sounds very complex, the technique is a sequential step-wise process. The electrochemistry enables the group to change the conditions in the cells. The high performance liquid chrometography will allow them to separate out all of the different proteins to look where the metals have gone, and the inductively coupled plasma mass spectroscopy will help them to identify and quantify individual metals.
"We are trying to understand how certain proteins can donate essential metals at the correct time and the correct place," Mason explained. "We're also trying to understand how these proteins prevent the donation of highly toxic, non-essential metals such as mercury, cadium and lead.
"The third area we're trying to understand is the rates of turnovers of metals in these proteins. And, again, the technique is unique because it enables us to use stable isotopes, which will allow us to look at the rates of exchange of metals, such as copper, in protein."
The results of their research will ultimately provide a basic mechanistic understanding of how cells accumulate, store and excrete metals in the human body, information scientists don't currently have.
Mason also expects this research will give scientists an understanding of how pollutant metals that people put in the environment affect the ecosystem, especially the marine environment, and individual members of a community.
Part of the grant also includes an opportunity for up to 10 students to work on the project, an aspect of the project all three professors are very excited about because they really enjoy working with students.
"It is going to offer these students exposure and training in some of the most sophisticated techniques available to science at the moment," Mason said. "The aim, of course, is to get them to enter Ph.D. programs, but it will also make the students very, very competitive in the workplace."
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