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April 10, 2014
Amino acid fingerprints revealed in new study

Some three billion base pairs make up the human genome – the floorplan of life. In 2003, the Human Genome Project announced the successful decryption of this code, a tour de force that continues to supply a stream of insights relevant to human health and disease.

Nevertheless, the primary actors in virtually all life processes are the proteins coded for by DNA sequences known as genes. For a broad spectrum of diseases, proteins can yield far more compelling revelations than may be gleaned from DNA alone if researchers can manage to unlock the amino acid sequences from which they are composed.

Now, Stuart Lindsay and his colleagues at Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute have taken a major step in this direction, demonstrating the accurate identification of amino acids by briefly pinning each in a narrow junction between a pair of flanking electrodes and measuring a characteristic chain of current spikes passing through successive amino acid molecules.

By using a machine-learning algorithm, Lindsay and his team were able to train a computer to recognize bursts of electrical activity representing the momentary binding of an amino acid within the junction. The noise signals were shown to act as reliable fingerprints, identifying amino acids, including subtly modified variants.

Proteins are already providing a wealth of information pertinent to diseases, including cancer, diabetes and neurological disorders like Alzheimer's, as well as furnishing key insights into another protein-mediated process: aging.

The new work advances the prospect of clinical protein sequencing and the discovery of new biomarkers – early warning beacons signaling disease. Further, protein sequencing may radically transform patient treatment, enabling precise monitoring of disease response to therapeutics at the molecular level.

The group's research results are reported in the advanced online edition of the journal Nature Nanotech.

From genome to proteome

An enormous library of proteins, known as the proteome, occupies center stage in virtually all life processes. Proteins are vital for cellular growth, differentiation and repair; they catalyze chemical reactions and provide defense against disease, among myriad housekeeping functions.

One of the strangest surprises to emerge from the Human Genome Project is the fact that only about 1.5 percent of the genome codes for proteins. The rest of the DNA nucleotides form regulatory sequences, non-coding RNA genes, introns and noncoding DNA (once derisively labeled "junk DNA"). This leaves humans with a scant 20-25,000 genes, a sobering discovery given that the lowly roundworm has roughly the same number. As professor Lindsay notes, the news gets worse: "A lily plant has about an order of magnitude more genes than we do," he says.

The mystery of complex organisms like humans bearing an appallingly low gene number has to do with the fact that proteins generated from the DNA blueprint can be modified in a number of ways. In fact, scientists have already identified over 100,000 human proteins, and researchers like Lindsay believe this may be only the tip of the iceberg.

Just as sentences can have their meanings altered through changes in word order or punctuation, proteins generated from gene templates can change function (or sometimes be rendered inoperable), often with serious consequences for human health. Two key processes that modify proteins are known as alternative splicing and post-translational modification. They are the drivers of the extraordinary protein variation observed.

Alternative splicing occurs when coding regions of RNA (known as exons) are spliced together, and non-coding regions (known as introns) are snipped out prior to translation into proteins. This process does not always occur neatly, with occasional overlaps of exons or introns being introduced, producing alternatively spliced proteins, whose function may be altered.

Post-translational modifications are markers added after proteins have been made. There are many forms of post-translational modification, including methylation and phosphorylation. Some altered proteins perform vital functions, while others may be aberrant and associated with disease (or disease propensity). A number of cancers are associated with such protein errors, which are already used as diagnostic markers. Proper identification of such proteins, however, remains a grand challenge in biomedicine.

New sequences

The technique described in the current research was earlier applied in the Lindsay lab for the successful sequencing of DNA bases. This method, known as recognition tunneling, involves threading a peptide through a tiny eyelet known as a nanopore. A pair of metal electrodes, separated by a gap of roughly two nanometers, sits on either side of the nanopore as successive units of a peptide are threaded through the tiny aperture, with each unit completing an electrical circuit and emitting a burst of current spikes.

The research group demonstrated that close analyses of these current spikes could enable researchers to determine which of the four nucleotide bases – adenine, thymine, cytosine or guanine – was poised between the electrodes in the nanopore.

"About two years ago in one of our lab meetings, it was suggested that maybe the same technology would work for amino acids," Lindsay says. Thus began efforts to tackle the substantially greater challenge of using recognition tunneling to identify all 20 amino acids found in proteins, as opposed to just four bases comprising DNA.

Single-molecule sequencing of proteins is of enormous value, offering the potential to detect diminishingly small quantities of proteins that may have been tweaked by alternative splicing or post-translational modification. Often, these are the very proteins of interest from the standpoint of recognizing disease states, though current technologies are inadequate to detect them.

As Lindsay notes, there is no equivalent in the protein world to polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology, which allows minute quantities of DNA in a sample to be rapidly amplified. "We probably don't even know about most of the proteins that would be important in diagnostics. It's just a black hole to us because the concentrations are too low for current analytical techniques," he says, adding that the ability of recognition tunneling to pinpoint abnormalities on a single molecule basis "could be a complete game changer in proteomics."

The new paper describes a series of experiments in which pure samples of individual amino acids, individual molecules in mixed solution and short peptide chains were successfully identified through recognition tunneling. The work sets the stage for a method to sequence individual protein molecules rapidly and cheaply (see accompanying animation).

A machine-learning algorithm known as Support Vector Machine was used to train a computer to analyze the burst signals produced when amino acids formed bonds in the tunnel junction and emitted a lively noise signal as the poised electrodes passed, tunneling current through each molecule. (The machine-learning algorithm is the same one used by the IBM computer "Watson" to defeat a human opponent in Jeopardy.)

Lindsay says that around 50 distinct signal burst characteristics were used in the amino acid identifications but that most of the discriminatory power is achieved with 10 or fewer signal traits.

Remarkably, recognition tunneling not only pinpointed amino acids with high reliability from single complex burst signals, but managed to distinguish a post-translationally modified protein (sarcosine) from its unmodified precursor (glycine), and also to discriminate between mirror-image molecules known as enantiomers, and so-called isobaric molecules, which differ in peptide sequence but exhibit identical masses.

Pathway to the $1,000 dollar proteome?

Lindsay indicates that the new studies, which rely on innovative strategies for handling single molecules coupled with startling advances in computing power, open up horizons that were inconceivable only a short time ago. It is becoming clear that the tools that made the $1,000 genome feasible are equally applicable to an eventual $1,000 proteome. Indeed, such a landmark may not be far off. "Why not?" Lindsay asks. "People think it's crazy, but the technical tools are there, and what will work for DNA sequencing will work for protein sequencing."

While the tunneling measurements have until now been made using a complex laboratory instrument known as a scanning tunneling microscope (STM), Lindsay and his colleagues are currently working on a solid state device capable of fast, cost-effective and clinically applicable recognition tunneling of amino acids and other analytes. Eventual application of such solid-state devices in massively parallel systems should make clinical proteomics a practical reality.

Stuart Lindsay is the director of Biodesign's Center for Single-Molecule Biophysics, the Edward and Nadine Carson Presidential Chair in Physics at ASU and Regents Professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Chemistry and Biochemistry.

The current research received funding from the National Institute of Health's National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI).

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Richard Harth, Richard.Harth@asu.edu
The Biodesign Institute


Ryan Muller, biochemistry and molecular/cellular biology major at ASU.
April 4, 2014
Three outstanding ASU juniors, including biochemistry major, win Goldwater scholarships

Three outstanding Arizona State University juniors who already are doing sophisticated research have won Goldwater Scholarships, the nation's premier awards for undergraduates studying science, math and engineering.

Working in the laboratories of ASU senior faculty and scientists, the students carry out research ranging from developing biosensors for early detection of infectious diseases to conducting microelectronics research at ASU's Flexible Display Center.

Recipients are Ryan Muller of Phoenix, majoring in biochemistry and molecular/cellular biology; Brett Larsen of Chandler, majoring in electrical engineering and physics; and Jakob Hansen of Mesa, a mathematics and economics major. Each of the four will receive $7,500 a year for up to two years.

All are in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, while Larsen is also in the Fulton Schools of Engineering. All three are enrolled in Barrett, the Honors College. A fourth student who received honorable mention is Samuel Blitz, a physics major from Scottsdale.

ASU students have won 55 Goldwater Scholarships in the last 21 years, placing ASU among the leading public universities.

Muller is a resourceful and motivated student who began doing research at ASU while still a student at North High School, and again the summer before his freshman year. Xiao Wang, assistant professor in the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering, remembers that even though Muller was initially the youngest member of the iGEM synthetic biology research team, others quickly began to rely on him.

"His ideas were fresh, innovative and motivating to the team," says Wang. "In fact, the first day he volunteered in my lab, without any prior experience, he implemented a strategy to effectively screen for bacterial colonies that contained the correct transformed plasmid. The team began to rely on his resourcefulness."

In subsequent years, Muller continued working on the team and was a key player in helping them develop a portable, low-cost biosensor system to detect pathogens in water supplies. They won a gold medal and a spot in the international championship event for one of the world's premiere student engineering and science competitions.

Interested in expanding their work, Muller and others assembled a team of undergraduate researchers to seek additional funding. Last year, they were grand prize winners at the ASU Innovation Challenge and at the ASU Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative. Their fledgling company, Hydrogene Biotechnologies, may help cut down on water-borne diseases that can kill, such as acute childhood diarrhea.

Hansen, a graduate of Red Mountain High School, is a talented mathematician who has been a delight to his professors as someone who enjoys the formal beauty of mathematics, yet is committed to doing research into real problems that affect humans.

"Jakob is exceptionally talented at mathematics, and is one of relatively few undergraduates that I have taught at ASU who was equally enthusiastic about pure and applied mathematics," says Jay Taylor, assistant professor in the School of Mathematics and Statistical Sciences. "He was always very keen to discuss the theory underpinning the techniques that I presented in class.

"For his project, he wrote a computer program to simulate a malaria outbreak in a small population and used this to investigate the conditions under which malaria will persist in small populations subject to seasonal variation in transmission intensity."

Hansen participated in ASU's Computational Science Training for Undergraduates last summer with Rosemary Renaut, professor of mathematics, who praised his mathematical sophistication to the Goldwater committee. He is continuing his research with Renault into more abstract problems.

Larsen, a graduate of Tri-City Christian Academy, received funding early in his career from the Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative. Over the past two years, he has conducted research at ASU's Flexible Display Center, developing ultra low-power circuits and applying advanced signal processing techniques to personnel detection along borders and in hostile territory.

Larsen says his interest in science was sparked by a Boy Scout leader, an electrical engineer who talked to him about subjects that enthralled him: objects traveling at the speed of light, the astonishing power of fusion and fission reactions, and theoretical designs for time machines and light sabers. Larsen was inspired to excel in science so he could push the boundaries of technology.

Called "a brilliant young man" by Antonia Papandreou-Suppappola, professor of electrical engineering, Larsen shares his love of science by mentoring a group of engineering freshmen and leading a science club for young children at the Child Crisis Center. In the future, he hopes to focus his work on developing mathematical models for defense applications.

"ASU's success in the Goldwater competition is in large part due to the excellent opportunities our students have had to do advanced lab research with talented and committed faculty," says Janet Burke, associate dean for national scholarship advisement in Barrett, the Honors College.

"It goes without saying that the drive and brilliance of the students themselves are both important. I have a top-notch Goldwater committee who do a superb job of selecting the students whose applications will bubble to the top of the pile."

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Sarah Auffret, sauffret@asu.edu Media Relations

April 1, 2014
ASU leads new national research network to study impacts of nanomaterials

Arizona State University researchers will lead a multi-university project to aid industry in understanding and predicting the potential health and environmental risks from nanomaterials.

Nanoparticles, which are approximately 1 to 100 nanometers in size, are used in an increasing number of consumer products to provide texture, resiliency and in some cases antibacterial protection.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has awarded a grant of $5 million over the next four years to support the LCnano Network as part of the Life Cycle of Nanomaterials project, which will focus on helping to ensure the safety of nanomaterials throughout their life cycles-from the manufacture to the use and disposal of the products that contain these engineered materials.

Paul Westerhoff is the LCnano Network director. Westerhoff is the associate dean of research for ASU's Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and a professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment.

The project will team engineers, chemists, toxicologists and social scientists from ASU, Johns Hopkins, Duke, Carnegie Mellon, Purdue, Yale, Oregon's state universities, the Colorado School of Mines and the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Engineered nanomaterials of silver, titanium, silica and carbon are among the most commonly used. They are dispersed in common liquids and food products, embedded in the polymers from which many products are made, and attached to textiles, including clothing.

Nanomaterials provide clear benefits for many products, Westerhoff says, but there remains "a big knowledge gap" about how, or if, nanomaterials are released from consumer products into the environment as they move through their life cycles, eventually ending up in soils and water systems.

"We hope to help industry make sure that the kinds of products that engineered nanomaterials enable them to create are safe for the environment," Westerhoff says.

"We will develop molecular-level fundamental theories to ensure the manufacturing processes for these products is safer," he explains, "and provide databases of measurements of the properties and behavior of nanomaterials before, during and after their use in consumer products."

Among the bigger questions the LCnano Network will investigate are whether nanomaterials can become toxic through exposure to other materials or the biological environs they come in contact with over the course of their life cycles, Westerhoff says.

The researchers will collaborate with industry-both large and small companies-and government laboratories to find ways of reducing such uncertainties.

Among the objectives is to provide a framework for product design and manufacturing that preserves the commercial value of the products using nanomaterials, but minimizes potentially adverse environmental and health hazards.

In pursuing that goal, the network team will also be developing technologies to better detect and predict potential nanomaterial impacts.

Beyond that, the LCnano Network also plans to increase awareness about efforts to protect public safety as engineered nanomaterials in products become more prevalent.

The grant will enable the project team to develop educational programs, including a museum exhibit about nanomaterials based on the LCnano Network project. The exhibit will be deployed through a partnership with the Arizona Science Center and researchers who have worked with the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network.

The team also plans to make information about its research progress available on the nanotechnology industry website Nanohub.org.

"We hope to use Nanohub both as an internal virtual networking tool for the research team and as a portal to post the outcomes and products of our research for public access," Westerhoff says.

The grant will also support the participation of graduate students in the Science Outside the Lab program, which educates students on how science and engineering research can help shape public policy.

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Other ASU faculty members involved in the LCnano Network project are:

Pierre Herckes, associate professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Kiril Hristovski, assistant professor, Department of Engineering, College of Technology and Innovation
Thomas Seager, associate professor, School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment
David Guston, professor and director, Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes
Ira Bennett, assistant research professor, Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes
Jameson Wetmore, associate professor, Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes, and School of Human Evolution and Social Change

Media Contact: Joe Kullman, joe.kullman@asu.edu (480) 965-8122 Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

 


March 17, 2014
ASU LightWorks spearheads partnership with AORA

Solar-generated electricity, which can suffer from intermittency issues and related impacts on the grid, is about to blossom at Arizona State University. Work will now begin on the development of a hybrid concentrated solar system, following a contract signing with ASU and AORA to provide research expertise in order to enhance the efficiency of this unique technology.

AORA Solar NA has agreed to install the first ever Solar Tulip hybrid generating facility in the United States on university land, and ASU faculty, research staff and students will work hand in hand with AORA to enhance the system.

This project includes the installation of a hybrid concentrated solar power plant that employs a Solar Tulip to concentrate the sun's energy, turning it into electricity. The system produces power 24/7, moving seamlessly from solar to natural gas or biogas, and is also promising because it uses little to no water while producing a high quality thermal output in addition to power.

AORA Solar NA, a U.S. company, will work with a multidisciplinary ASU team to research options to increase efficiency, improve reliability, utilize the exhaust heat and decrease the cost of this Israeli-developed technology. AORA will construct the demonstration power plant, which includes a tower (approximately 100 feet high) appropriately called the Solar Tulip, on undeveloped land near the Karsten Golf Course in Tempe.

The technology includes a collection of mirrors to concentrate the sun's rays to heat compressed air to more than 1800 degrees Fahrenheit and drive a gas turbine. The rated output of the system is 100 kilowatts of electricity and an additional 170 kilowatts of thermal energy, about enough energy to power between 60-80 homes.

At night, or when overcast, the Tulip can use a wide range of fuels to heat the air, and is thereby able to produce power and heat around the clock. The system is modular in design, allowing for multiple Tulips to work together, enabling the technology to match growing electric demand requirements. The relatively small footprint makes this system a potentially perfect complement to housing developments or industrial parks, and offers an option to enhance grid stability in the presence of transient renewable generation.

"ASU is a natural partner for us, not only because of its sunny location, but because of the university's dedication to innovation and sustainability," said Zev Rosenzweig, CEO of AORA Solar. "We are excited to make our debut here in the United States with this innovative technology, where we will continue to grow and develop the Tulip into a system that cities and industries around the world use to generate continuous energy with renewable resources.

"ASU's breadth of research capability will undoubtedly allow us to increase output and reduce overall costs, which will bring us to commercial viability. Our confidence in this project is enhanced with the participation of project director, Ellen Stechel, who has spearheaded the concept from the beginning, along with her colleagues Gary Dirks, William Brandt and the ASU LightWorks team."

AORA Solar is currently operating two additional research facilities, one located in a solar research park in Almeria, Spain, and the original unit in Israel. These systems can be controlled remotely via computer, a unique capability that provides innovative options for possibilities in the U.S. and, indeed, around the world, including developing countries.

The ASU/AORA collaborative relationship will not only bring ASU closer to its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2025, but it will also benefit students and researchers across multiple fields of study.

"This is another instance in which ASU has brought in cutting-edge technology that its students can learn from and help perfect," said Sethuraman "Panch" Panchanathan, senior vice president of Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development at ASU. "With this collaboration, the university has established a commitment to integrate students, faculty and staff into research on the Solar Tulip design to bring 24-hour solar/renewable technology to commercialization."

"The AORA/ASU collaboration provides a multitude of possibilities looking forward," said Gary Dirks, director of ASU LightWorks. "It is a perfect example of industry and academia coming together and leveraging their unique strengths to create collaborative projects that propel new and viable technology into our energy future. The Solar Tulip has enormous potential, both at ASU and beyond."

AORA Solar has contracted with GreenFuel Technologies, a Phoenix-based General Contractor specializing in environmental energy projects, to construct the research plant at the ASU campus. The groundbreaking is expected to occur in April, with the anticipated operation date to be sometime in the late September/early October time frame. AORA Solar and ASU look forward to welcoming university peers, along with the public, to a ribbon-cutting event at the Tulip's completion.

"We are pleased to host the Solar Tulip at the ASU Tempe campus," said John Riley, sustainability operations officer at ASU. "It is a visually iconic piece of technology, helping to illustrate the way ASU is a destination place for state-of-the-art research and facilities."

This collaboration was advanced by Arizona State University LightWorks, a research initiative that unites resources and researchers across ASU to confront global energy challenges. The LightWorks team provided the vision of required research, identified the multiple research windows in which AORA will participate and is intimately involved in moving the project from concept to fruition. With a proven track record of swiftly and strategically partnering with a diverse set of institutions, LightWorks continues to help overcome challenges in the fields of solar power, sustainable fuels and energy policy. To learn more about ASU LightWorks, visit asulightworks.com.

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Amelia Huggins, amelia.huggins@asu.edu
480-965-1754
Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development

Sarah Mason, sarahmason@asu.edu
480.727.9658
ASU LightWorks


March 11, 2014
ASU chemistry grad appointed as WPI's first female president

Laurie Leshin has helped send robots to Mars, overseen NASA's largest science center, commanded research on human space exploration, and even has a piece of the solar system named after her.

The 48-year-old geochemist and space scientist's next mission: leading Worcester Polytechnic Institute as the first woman president in its 149-year history.

"My favorite thing in the world is learning new things and meeting new people. It's like candy to me," said Leshin, who is currently a dean at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. Leshin said she hopes to "turn up the volume" on the "many things WPI already has going for it."

A self-described "space nerd," Leshin shares a birthday with astronaut Neil Armstrong and is a member of the team that launched the Mars Curiosity rover mission.

Once asked by an interviewer about her propensity for referring to Curiosity as a "she," Leshin said it was "because she's smart and good-looking."

Though WPI is small in size, its stature has been growing recently, thanks in part to its research in the booming robotics field.

Its ties to NASA include hosting a major robotics contest for student teams in conjunction with the space agency.

And in December, WPI researchers finished seventh in a prestigious robot throwdown run by the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that featured teams running a 330-pound humanoid robot through emergency rescue situations.

The WPI team finished ahead of teams from NASA's own Johnson Space Center and the Advanced Technology Laboratories of space giant Lockheed Martin.

Leshin is scheduled to officially take over as WPI's 16th president in July, in time for the start of the school's next academic year.

School officials said she was the "unanimous first choice" of university trustees, who spent six months sifting among 200 candidates for the position. She joined Rensselaer in 2011.

She replaces Dennis D. Berkey who stepped down in May after leading WPI for nine years.

Her prodigious scientific pedigree includes several senior-level administrative positions at NASA, including helping to oversee the agency's human spaceflight activities.

She also helped run the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, a massive facility that conducts research on space and builds spacecraft, instruments, and new technology.

The Goddard center is named after Robert Hutchings Goddard, a WPI alumnus who built and launched the world's first liquid-fueled rocket from a farm in Auburn, Mass., in 1926.

Among Leshin's many awards and honors is something few others are likely to duplicate: She has a patch of outer space with her name on it. "4922 Leshin" is a several-mile long strip of matter in the so-called main belt of asteroids that are roughly located between the planets Mars and Jupiter.

The International Astronomical Union named the asteroid in recognition of her contributions to planetary science.

Leshin said she first discovered her love for space at age 10 when she read a copy of Time magazine on her mother's kitchen table in her hometown of Tempe, Ariz. The magazine showed pictures of the surface of Mars taken by NASA spacecraft in the Viking program.

"It looked a lot like the desert landscape around where I grew up," she recalled.

Leshin earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Arizona State University in 1987 before later earning a master's and a doctorate in geochemistry from California Institute of Technology.

She is married to astrophysicist and former NASA official Jon Morse. And her scientific specialty sounds other-worldy -cosmochemistry; according to her biography, while at NASA, she was "primarily interested in deciphering the record of water on objects in our solar system."

"Laurie Leshin is impressive by any measure," said the chairman of WPI's trustees, Warner Fletcher. "She is an academic who understands the role of -and the potential for -academia in the larger world. She is well positioned to take WPI to an even higher level of excellence and prominence."

WPI is small in comparison to engineering powerhouses such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University -about 4,000 undergraduates and some 1,900 full- and part-time graduate students.

But it has been rising in prominence.

In 2009, NASA awarded a WPI team $500,000 for its winning entry in a contest to build a robot that could move lunar soil.

WPI dominated the contest by building "Moonraker 2.0," a robot that moved about 960 pounds of dirt within 30 minutes.

And its showing in the DARPA robot challenge in December was good enough to put WPI in the finals of the competition, battling it out with MIT and a prestigious team of Japanese scientists for a $2 million prize.

Leshin cited the "high quality" WPI faculty and students and the school's "distinct interdisciplinary project-based approach to learning."

She said the project-based curriculum at WPI reminds her of how NASA operates

An avid Twitter user, Leshin uses social media to communicate with students, faculty, and others in her field. On Tuesday, she received dozens of messages on Twitter offering congratulations.

"I'm up 1,000 followers today," Leshin said, laughing. "It's amazing."

Read more

Michael B. Farrell of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Matt Rocheleau can be reached at matthew.rocheleau@globe.com. For more coverage of area colleges and universities, visit boston.com/yourcampus.


February 18, 2014
ASU hosts You Be The Chemist Challenge

Middle school students from across Maricopa County showed off their knowledge of chemistry concepts by competing for a spot in the Chemical Educational Foundation's 10th annual National You Be The Chemist Challenge on Tuesday on the Tempe campus. Chemistry professor Jennifer Green hosted the event.

BIYA Global and Brenntag Pacific Inc. also sponsored the competition.

CEF is a nationally recognized nonprofit organization meant to boost education in science.

The event is an academic challenge that uses the structure of a competition to encourage middle school students to explore important chemistry concepts, scientific discoveries and laboratory concepts. CEF outreach assistant Elena Lien said ASU would host the local competition and the winner would go on to compete in the state competition and eventually the national competition.

The competition hosted by ASU was the Maricopa County Challenge.

"Around 25,000 middle school students compete," she said. "This isn't a science fair; it's structured a lot like the National Spelling Bee."

Lien said CEF organizes and hosts the National Challenge in Philadelphia. Each state winner will receive an all-expenses-paid trip to the competition in June.

"This year is extra special because the competition is celebrating its 10th anniversary," she said.

The Challenge program relies on partnerships with community members who seek to support student engagement with science.

Participation in the challenge is open to middle school students across the U.S. CEF produces the study materials and questions for each level of the competition. Students have the chance to study material on the CEF website.

The questions align with Next Generation Science Standards. They include basic science concepts that appear in many state assessments.

A team of chemical industry members, professors and curriculum specialists develop the questions.

Challenge questions and materials also integrate language arts and history concepts, which present chemistry questions in an educational and entertaining format.

CEF Executive Director John Rice said the challenge enlivens the learning engagement for students.

"CEF is continually impressed by Challenge participants' grasp of scientific concepts and dedication to expanding their science knowledge," he said. "As CEF celebrates the 10th anniversary of the Challenge, we are eager to see how past and future participants will contribute their talents to the scientific community."

The top four participants in the local challenge received gift cards, trophies and other prizes.

The competition consisted of six rounds plus a practice round. There were four introductory rounds, a semi-final round and a championship round.

Participants were given clickers and instructed to answer chemistry questions formatted in a multiple choice setting. They were later given dry-erase boards to write their answers on in the final rounds.

This year, 15 students participated in the local challenge. Various numbers of students were eliminated after each introductory round, leaving four students to compete in the semi-final round and eventually two students in the championship round.

Center for Educational Excellence member Cheryl Hogan said those who tied were to compete in a lightning round.

"I think it's really great to see these children have such great interest in chemistry and sciences," she said.

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Reach the reporter at kgrega@asu.edu or follow her on twitter @kelciegrega


An artificial photosynthetic reaction center containing a bioinspired electron relay (yellow) mimics some aspects of photosynthesis.

February 18, 2014
Artificial leaf jumps developmental hurdle

In a recent early online edition of Nature Chemistry, ASU scientists, along with colleagues at Argonne National Laboratory, have reported advances toward perfecting a functional artificial leaf.

Designing an artificial leaf that uses solar energy to convert water cheaply and efficiently into hydrogen and oxygen is one of the goals of BISfuel – the Energy Frontier Research Center, funded by the Department of Energy, in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Arizona State University.

Hydrogen is an important fuel in itself and serves as an indispensible reagent for the production of light hydrocarbon fuels from heavy petroleum feed stocks. Society requires a renewable source of fuel that is widely distributed, abundant, inexpensive and environmentally clean.

Society needs cheap hydrogen.

"Initially, our artificial leaf did not work very well, and our diagnostic studies on why indicated that a step where a fast chemical reaction had to interact with a slow chemical reaction was not efficient," said ASU chemistry professor Thomas Moore. "The fast one is the step where light energy is converted to chemical energy, and the slow one is the step where the chemical energy is used to convert water into its elements viz. hydrogen and oxygen."

The researchers took a closer look at how nature had overcome a related problem in the part of the photosynthetic process where water is oxidized to yield oxygen.

"We looked in detail and found that nature had used an intermediate step," said Moore. "This intermediate step involved a relay for electrons in which one half of the relay interacted with the fast step in an optimal way to satisfy it, and the other half of the relay then had time to do the slow step of water oxidation in an efficient way."

They then designed an artificial relay based on the natural one and were rewarded with a major improvement.

Seeking to understand what they had achieved, the team then looked in detail at the atomic level to figure out how this might work. They used X-ray crystallography and optical and magnetic resonance spectroscopy techniques to determine the local electromagnetic environment of the electrons and protons participating in the relay, and with the help of theory (proton coupled electron transfer mechanism), identified a unique structural feature of the relay. This was an unusually short bond between a hydrogen atom and a nitrogen atom that facilitates the correct working of the relay.

They also found subtle magnetic features of the electronic structure of the artificial relay that mirrored those found in the natural system.

Not only has the artificial system been improved, but the team understands better how the natural system works. This will be important as scientists develop the artificial leaf approach to sustainably harnessing the solar energy needed to provide the food, fuel and fiber that human needs are increasingly demanding.

ASU chemistry professors involved in this specific project include Thomas Moore, Devens Gust, Ana Moore and Vladimiro Mujica. The department is a unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Key collaborators in this work are Oleg Poluektov and Tijana Rajh from Argonne National Laboratory.

This work would not have been possible without the participation of many scientists driven by a common goal and coordinated by a program such as the Energy Frontier Research Center to bring the right combination of high-level skills to the research table.

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The Department of Chemisry and Biocehmistry is an academic unit in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
Jenny Green, jenny.green@asu.edu
480-965-1430
Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry


January 29, 2014
X-ray lasers get to the heart of the matter: Fromme & Spence research highlighted in current issue of Nature

In the foothills above Palo Alto, California, physicists have set up an extreme obstacle course for some of the world's fastest electrons. First the particles are accelerated through a 3-kilometre vacuum pipe to almost the speed of light. Then they slam through a gauntlet of magnets that forces them into a violent zigzag. They respond with a blast of X-rays so fierce it could punch through steel.

But the scientists at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory have no interest in weaponry. Their machine, one of the world's most powerful X-ray free-electron lasers (XFELs), is a tool for studying challenging forms of matter, whether compressed to the kind of pressures and temperatures found deep inside a star, or folded into the complex tangle of a protein molecule.

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Richard P. Van Duyne, Charles E. and Emma H. Morrison Professor of Chemistry, Professor of Biomedical Engineering, and Professor in the Applied Physics program at Northwestern University, to give Spring Eyring Lectures

General Lecture
“Molecular Plasmonics: Nanoscale Spectroscopy and Sensing"

Thursday, 2/20/2014
7:30 PM, PSH-151

Technical Presentation
“New Tools for the Study of Single Molecule Chemistry at the Atomic Length Scale and Femtosecond Time Scale”

Friday, 2/21/2014
3:40 PM, PSH-151

Professor Van Duyne discovered surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS), invented nanosphere lithography (NSL), and developed ultrasensitive nanosensors based on localized surface plasmon resonance (LSPR) spectroscopy.

His research interests include all forms of surface-enhanced spectroscopy, plasmonics, nanoscale biosensors, atomic layer deposition (ALD), atomic force microscopy (AFM), scanning tunneling microscopy (STM), ultra-high vacuum (UHV) STM, UHV-tip-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (UHV-TERS), and surface-enhanced femtosecond stimulated Raman spectroscopy (SE-FSRS).

Professor Van Duyne has been recognized for his accomplishments with several recent honors including the American Chemical Society's E. Bright Wilson Award in Spectroscopy, (2014), the Charles Mann Award in Applied Raman Spectroscopy, from the Society of Applied Spectroscopy (2014), and the Sir George Stokes Award, Royal Society of Chemistry (2013). He was made an Honorary Member of the Society of Applied Spectroscopy last year. In 2011 Van Duyne made the Thomson Reuters list of top 100 chemists over the period 2000-2010 as ranked by the impact of their published research.

Other awards include the Charles N. Reilley Award, Society for Electroanalytical Chemistry (2011); Election to the US National Academy of Sciences (2010); Award in Analytical Chemistry, American Chemical Society (2010); Bomem-Michelson Award, Coblentz Society (2010); Ellis R. Lippincott Award, Optical Society of America (2008); Professeur invite classe exceptionnelle- University Pierre et Marie Curie, Paris (2008); Special Creativity Award, National Science Foundation (2007); L'Oreal Art and Science of Color Prize (2006); Nobel Laureate Signature Award for Graduate Education, American Chemical Society (2005); Election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2004); and The Earle K. Plyler Prize for Molecular Spectroscopy, American Physical Society (2004).

Van Duyne received his B.Sc. degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (1967) and a PhD. degree in analytical chemistry from the University of North Carolina (1971).

More information on EYRING LECTURERS

ASU researchers Dingjie Wang and Garrett Nelson insert a lipid cubic phase injector containing tiny crystals of G protein-coupled receptors into the sample chamber during an experiment at the Linac Coherent Light Source's Coherent X-ray Imaging instrument station.
Photo by: Fabricio Sousa/SLAC

January 6, 2014
ASU researchers report major advance in human proteins

A group of researchers from Arizona State University is part of a larger team reporting a major advance in the study of human proteins that could open up new avenues for more effective drugs of the future. The work is being reported in this week's Science magazine.

In the paper, "Serial femtosecond crystallography of G-protein-coupled receptors," the team reports it has been successful in imaging, at room temperature, the structure of G protein-coupled receptors (GPCR) with the use of an X-ray free-electron laser.

GPCRs are highly diverse membrane proteins that mediate cellular communication. Because of their involvement in key physiological and sensory processes in humans, they are thought to be prominent drug targets.

The method described in the paper was applied for the first time to this important class of proteins, for which the 2012 Nobel Prize was awarded to Brian Kobilka and Robert Lefkowitz, said John Spence, an ASU Regents' Professor of physics. Spence is also the director of science at National Science Foundation's BioXFEL Science and Technology Center, and a team member on the Science paper.

"These GPCRs are the targets of a majority of drug molecules," Spence said, but they are notoriously difficult to work with. This is the first time structural observations of the GPCRs have been made at room temperature, allowing researchers to overcome several disadvantages of previous imaging methods of the proteins.

"Normally, protein crystallography is performed on frozen samples, to reduce the effects of radiation damage," Spence said, "but this new work was based on an entirely new approach to protein crystallography, called SFX (Serial Femtosecond Crystallography), developed jointly by ASU, the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY) and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

"This method uses brief pulses of X-rays instead of freezing the sample to avoid damage, and so it reveals the structure which actually occurs in a cell at room temperature, not the frozen structure," Spence added. "The 50 femtosecond pulses (120 per second) 'outrun' radiation damage, giving a clear picture of the structure before it is vaporized by the beam."

The femtosecond crystallography technique could enable researchers to view molecular dynamics at a time-scale never observed before. Spence said the method basically operates by collecting the scattering for the image so quickly that images are obtained before the sample is destroyed by the X-ray beam.

By "outrunning" radiation-damage processes in this way, the researchers can record the time-evolution of molecular processes at room temperature, he said.

Spence said ASU played a crucial role in the project described in Science, through the invention by ASU physics professor Uwe Weierstall of an entirely new device for sample delivery suited to this class of proteins.

The lipic cubic phase (LCP) injector that Weierstall developed replaces the continuous stream of liquid (which sends a continuously refreshed stream of proteins across the pulsed X-ray beam) with a slowly moving viscous stream of "lipid cubic phase solution," which has the consistency of automobile grease.

"We call it our 'toothpaste jet,'" Spence said.

He added that the LCP solves three problems associated with previous SFX work, which made this new work possible:

  • The viscosity slows the flow rate so the crystals emerge at about the same rate as the X-ray pulses come along, hence no protein is wasted. This is important for the study of human protein, which is more costly than diamond on a per gram basis.
  • The "hit rate" is very high. Nearly all X-ray pulses hit protein particles.
  • Most important, LCP is itself a growth medium for protein nanocrystals.

"A big problem with the SFX work we have been doing over the past four years is that people did not know how to make the required nanocrystals," Spence said. "Now it seems many can be grown in the LCP delivery medium itself."

The international team reporting the advance in Science includes researchers from the Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, Calif.; the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY), Hamburg, Germany; the Department of Physics and the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at ASU, Tempe, Ariz.; SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, Menlo Park, Calif.; Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland; Uppsala University, Sweden; University of Hamburg, Germany; and Center for Ultrafast Imaging, Hamburg, Germany.

The collaboration between the team at ASU and the research groups at the Scripps Research Institute led by Professor Vadim Cherzov was initiated by Petra Fromme at ASU as a collaboration between two of the membrane protein centers of the Protein Structure Initiative of the National Institute of Health (PSI:Biology) – the Center for Membrane Proteins in Infectious Diseases (MPID) at ASU and Trinity College Dublin led by Petra Fromme, and the GPCR Network at Scripps led by Prof. Ray Stevens.

Fromme led the ASU group that helped plan the experiments, characterize the samples and assist with data collection. Other members of the ASU team include Daniel James, Dingjie Wang, Garrett Nelson, Uwe Weierstall, Nadia Zatsepin, Richard Kirian, Raimund Fromme, Shibom Basu, Christopher Kupitz, Kimberley Rendek, Ingo Grotjohann and John Spence.

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Skip Derra, skip.derra@asu.edu
480-965-4823
Media Relations


New technology, developed in the lab of Mark Hayes, using microscale electric field gradients now can tell the difference between good and bad bacteria in minutes from extremely small samples. Shown are generic E. coli and bacteria populations isolated on a microdevice.

December 2, 2013
Sorting good germs from bad, in the bacterial world

Arizona State University scientists have developed a microfluidic chip, which can sort good germs from bad.

Your intestines are home to about 100 trillion bacteria. That’s more than the number of cells that comprise the entire human body. Armies of bacteria sneak into our bodies the moment we are born, uninvited but necessary guests.

For the most part, these bacteria are industrious and friendly. Some of them are even beneficial, helping with digestion and producing vitamins. A few miscreants, though, will kill us if we let them stay.

Sometimes the difference between harmless and harmful is miniscule. Take E. coli for instance. Billions of E. coli organisms live in the average person’s intestines. They go about their business causing no trouble whatsoever. However, one particular strain of E. coli, O157:H7, causes about 2,000 hospitalizations and 60 deaths in the U.S. every year. The differences between this strain and others are detectable only at the molecular level.

But how do we separate friend from foe? Determining whether or not bacteria are harmful usually requires growing cultures from food or infected patients. This is a time-consuming process that must be carried out in a laboratory. Since an estimated 9.4 million cases of food-borne illness occur each year in the U.S., we stand to gain much from new technologies that can rapidly identify microorganisms.

Scientists at Arizona State University’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, have developed a new device that could significantly speed up the identification process for harmful bacteria and other microorganisms. The team, led by Professor Mark A. Hayes, hopes to create handheld, battery-operated devices that could deliver answers in minutes, instead of days.

Identification takes place within a microscopically small channel in a chip made from glass or silicone polymer. The microchannel features saw-tooth shapes that allow researchers to sort and concentrate microbes based on their unique electrical properties.

The phenomenon that makes this work is called dielectrophoresis, which involves an applied voltage that exerts force upon the bacteria. This force acts like a coin-sorter, causing bacteria to become trapped at different points along the channel. Where they stop, and at what voltage, depends on their molecular and electrical properties.

Using this approach, Hayes’s team including graduate student, Paul V. Jones, has separated extremely similar bacteria—pathogenic and nonpathogenic strains within the single species, E. coli. Their results have recently been published in “Online First” on SpringerLink and in the journal Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry.

“The fact that we can distinguish such similar bacteria has significant implications for doctors and health officials,” says Hayes. He explains, “that scientists have struggled to find ways to rapidly identify bacteria. E. coli O157:H7 is very similar in size and shape to other subtypes of the bacteria. But unlike many of the others it has the ability to produce shiga-like toxin, a protein that breaks down blood vessel walls in the digestive tract.”

Fortunately, all of these bacterial strains also possess subtle, but telltale differences in the proteins and other molecules that they express on their surface. According to Professor Hayes, dielectrophoresis is well suited to probe these phenotypic differences.

The researchers used an ordinary strain of E. coli along with two pathogenic varieties. They injected the cells into each channel and simply applied voltage to drive the cells downstream. The geometric features of the channel shape the electric field, creating regions of different intensity. This field creates the dielectrophoretic force that allows some cells to pass, while trapping others based on their phenotype.

So far, the device has only been used to test pure cultures of bacteria, but they hope soon to test complex mixtures of particles that are found in nature or the human body.

The next step is to create cheap, portable devices that would enable point-of-care or field based analysis. Such a device would require no time-consuming culturing or other tests, which would allow rapid response to disease or contamination, hopefully saving lives.

This work was supported by the NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (grant number: 5R03AI099740-02).
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Jenny Green, jenny.green@asu.edu
480-965-1430
Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry

read "ASU researchers on verge of medical breakthrough" on KTAR News