State Health Department Scientists Host Gathering of Molecular Biology Experts

ALBANY, NY, June 11, 2007 - "Molecular machinists" will gather in Albany on Wednesday, June 13, 2007, when the Department of Health's Wadsworth Center hosts a mini-symposium on "Molecular Machines and the Biology of Movement." Organized by the Center for Molecular Machines at Wadsworth, the symposium will feature presentations by leading experts and create opportunities for possible collaborations in a field that the National Institutes of Health considers one of the new pathways to discovery.

Molecular machines are tiny engines made of protein, DNA, RNA or other biomolecules. In the last decade, biologists have realized that almost all the biomolecules in human cells function as parts of larger molecular machines. They perform many essential functions, including synthesis, regulation, transport and dismantling of macromolecules in the cell. Learning how these machines normally operate and how mutations or chemicals cause them to malfunction is key to understanding disease. It is the knowledge base for the future practice of medicine.

"New Yorkers are fortunate to have world-class biomedical researchers at the Wadsworth Center laboratories who are moving forward the field of molecular medicine," said State Health Commissioner Richard F. Daines, M.D. "Studying the biological machinery of life promises to improve health in the long term."

Scientists at the Wadsworth Center are at the cutting edge of understanding how these mini-mechanisms work, move, and can be manipulated. The Center for Molecular Machines, directed by Wadsworth's Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, Joachim Frank, Ph.D., seeks to capitalize on Wadsworth's strengths in three-dimensional imaging with a wide range of resolutions and levels of structural detail. Among the machines studied at Wadsworth are ribosomes, the cell's protein factories; myosin, a protein motor that drives muscle contraction; and viruses, including HIV, that invade cells and hijack their machinery to replicate.

The symposium, held from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Center for Medical Science, 150 New Scotland Avenue, Albany, will feature eight prominent scientists working on both experimental and theoretical aspects of molecular machines:

  • Rajendra Agrawal (Wadsworth Center) investigates ribosomes, especially those of cell organelles, by using cryo-electron microscopy. Reconstructions of ribosomal complexes that are stalled by antibiotics or other biochemical means can be interpreted as a series of snapshots revealing the dynamic nature of this protein factory.
  • Ruben Gonzales (Columbia University) obtains fluorescence signals from single ribosomes engaged in various steps of protein synthesis. These signals provide information on the way the ribosome, a large molecular machine, moves and engages other molecules like transfer RNA to build proteins from its amino acid building blocks.
  • Charles Brooks III (The Scripps Institute) will present several examples of the use of computational investigations to infer the mechanical and dynamical properties of molecular machines based on their architecture.
  • Jiri Sponer (National Center for Biomolecular Research, Czech Republic) employs molecular dynamics simulations using computational techniques. He has examined how parts of the ribosome are constructed with built-in flexibility to perform their work.
  • Anna Marie Pyle (Yale University) will describe how one of the proteins from hepatitis C virus uses chemical energy to unwind RNA so that the genetic information contained on it can be duplicated. This RNA helicase activity is essential for viral replication and is a target for the development of antiviral drugs.
  • Klaus Schulten (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) employs large-scale computation to simulate the way molecular machines move, based on their atomic structure and on the physics of mechanical motion. His talk focuses on the study of a small motor protein, PcrA helicase, which unwinds double-stranded DNA into its single strands.
  • Robert Sauer (MIT) is investigating the operation of a molecular machine that participates in a process leading to the dismantling of cellular proteins. This machine recognizes folded proteins, unfolds them, and transports them into a chamber for degradation.
  • Daniela Nicastro (Brandeis University) performs structural studies, by cryo-electron microscopy, of a molecular motor called dynein. This large molecule participates in the transport of cellular components as well as the locomotion of entire bacterial cells by producing flagellar motion.

For background on the Center for Molecular Machines, go to http://www.wadsworth.org/molmachine/index.html.