$304,000 NIH Grant Funds Study of Cell Metabolism

While medical advances constantly conquer new challenges, some very basic questions about how cells function remain unanswered. Research at the Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences, led by biochemist Dr. Jana Patton-Vogt through a $304,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, will examine some of the mysteries of cell metabolism.

Far from the glamorous work of creating cures, this basic science deals with subjects and samples that usually fly far under the radar of science news headlines: yeast cultures and the composition of cell membranes. Yet, Patton-Vogt's work could have far-reaching implications, adding to the knowledge of diseases such as obesity, diabetes and cancer.

Cell membranes were once thought to be mere bystanders to cellular activity and cellular survival, said Patton-Vogt, associate professor of biology in the Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences. But in the past 20 years, researchers have determined that membrane do much more than serve as barriers. Cell membranes are composed of various proteins sandwiched between two layers of lipids. These lipids are continuously synthesized and degraded in response to environmental cues. The lipid composition of a membrane affects the function of the proteins embedded in it. So, cell membranes, instead of merely serving as gatekeepers, play critical roles in cell function.

How does membrane composition influence protein function? That's the mystery Patton-Vogt and her team of graduate and undergraduate students seek to better understand.

While bakers and brewers may not realize it, the basic yeast that makes bread and beer also is a common lab model because it is inexpensive, relatively easy to grow and manipulate genetically, yet shares many characteristics with human cells.

Preliminary results from Patton-Vogt and her team show strains of yeast engineered to have specific mutations in genes that affect plasma membrane lipid composition exhibit growth defects and decreased ability to take up nutrients. These results suggest that certain proteins embedded in the plasma membrane are not functioning correctly.

Using sophisticated equipment such as mass spectrometry, Patton-Vogt is optimistic that, through this grant, her students will be able to shed light on which lipids interact with and affect the function of specific proteins. In turn, these proteins impact the cell's fitness, Patton-Vogt explained.

"Lipids can affect the folding, the structure and the activity of membrane proteins," she said. "This research will help us to understand cell biology at a very fundamental level."

Besides exploring basic science, student involvement is a key factor in this particular grant award. "It's important that we are training graduate and undergraduate students as well as advancing science," Patton-Vogt said. "This fits into Duquesne's teacher-scholar model. Students are doing significant work in molecular genetics through this project. The grant recognizes that we have quality facilities, quality students and that this is quality research."

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