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Bruce Randall Donald, Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth College, has been awarded a five-year, $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to pursue research in the field of structural genomics, the study of the geometric structures of proteins. Funded through the NIH's National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) Protein Structure Initiative, the grant recognizes Dartmouth's computational biology expertise.
"It is rare for computer science researchers to be principal investigators on NIH grants," says Donald. "I'm excited to be a part of this important international venture."
The Protein Structure Initiative aims to map about 10,000 proteins before the year 2010, and NIGMS coordinates the U.S. component of the program involving scientists in at least nine countries.
With this grant, Donald and his team of post-doctoral fellows, and graduate and undergraduate students will contribute to the initiative by continuing their work developing mathematical algorithms, which create three-dimensional models of proteins. These models help researchers determine how proteins interact with pharmaceuticals, for example, thus helping design effective medications. This is especially relevant for treating illnesses that alter protein function, such as cancer, and in understanding how pathogens mutate their proteins to evade antibiotic and antiviral drugs.
"If this comprehensive effort to determine the structures of proteins is successful, the impact will be even greater than the Human Genome Project," says Donald.
The algorithms from Donald's lab interpret vast volumes of data generated from nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR) experiments. NMR surveys a protein's molecular structure, but it doesn't produce a traditional image like an X-ray or an ultrasound. NMR uses tiny, spectroscopic rulers to generate a network of complex geometric measurements, which algorithms then untangle to reveal a protein's shape and molecular architecture.
"This NIH grant supports Dartmouth's strong interdisciplinary group in computational biophysics and chemistry," says Donald. "We plan to continue to work with our colleagues in structural biology and biochemistry to develop our methods, and hopefully test them on proteins being studied by other Dartmouth researchers."
This project also involves collaborators at Harvard University, The Rowland Institute, Purdue University and Vertex Pharmaceuticals.
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