Graduate Studies in Molecular Biophysics
In the Molecular Biophysics track of the graduate program, emphasis is placed on free radicals and paramagnetic metal ions in biological systems.
Generally, free radicals have a bad reputation because their production is associated with many diseases such as atherosclerosis and Lou Gehrig's disease, and they are also largely responsible for the unhealthy effects of air pollution. Most people are surprised to learn that many free radicals are stable molecules and that biological systems purposely make free radicals as paracrine hormones. The free radical nitric oxide (NO) is involved in the control of blood pressure, memory, and inflammation, and is a major focus of research in the Department of Biophysics. Free radicals have been used for many years to probe metal-ion-containing sites of proteins such as hemoglobin.
Advances in genetic engineering now make it possible to introduce free radicals at any site in a protein by a technique known as site-directed spin labeling. Free radicals are excellent reporters of their environment and, therefore, can be used to investigate protein structure and dynamics. Site-directed spin-labeling studies of bacterial pores (used to control the flow of chemicals into and out of cells), as well as other proteins, are conducted in Biophysics.
Paramagnetic metals are involved in all aspects of biology. For example, ribonucleotide reductase, an enzyme, contains both a tyrosyl free radical and a mu-oxo dinuclear iron center. An antitumor agent, iron bleomycin, damages DNA by free-radical chemistry. And, superoxide dismutase, a free-radical-scavenging enzyme, contains an active-site copper that may be important in Lou Gehrig's disease.