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Spring 2004

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Life on Mars: Mathies

Chakraborty and Alivisatos honored

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King and Prausnitz retiring

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Chemistry News
by Charles B. Harris, Chair

Chemical Biology in the Department


 

Chair Charles Harris

The Department of Chemistry has two new faculty members arriving this summer: Christopher Chang and Richmond Sarpong. I feel their hirings to be quite a coup for the department, as both are highly distinguished scientists with exciting research programs. Chang is an inorganic chemist studying the functions of metal ions and redox chemistry in neuroscience. Sarpong is working on the total synthesis of biologically active and architecturally complex natural products. We are busily renovating laboratory space for both of them, using a combination of start-up funds and private support.

Additionally, Charles Shank is stepping down as the director of LBNL and will come to campus with his primary appointment in the chemistry department. (Shank also has appointments in physics and in electrical engineering and computer sciences.) Welcome to the department, Chuck!

Rapid growth of Chemical Biology
We are wrapping up the third year of our Chemical Biology Graduate Program, which supports graduate students working at the interface of chemistry and biology (http://cbgp.cchem.berkeley.edu/). The program recently received an NIH training grant and a gift from Chiron. We are also awarding our first bachelor’s degrees in Chemical Biology this semester, with over 100 current undergraduates choosing it as their major. As this field is a primary focus of many in the department, I would like to tell you about some of our exciting research findings. This is a case of too many stories for too little space, so I will touch on more of this in the next issue of the NewsJournal.

Fighting tuberculosis

 

Stfo, a virulence factor for tuberculosis, was discovered in Carolyn Bertozzi’s lab.

Chair Charles Harris

Using a combination of chemical and biological approaches, researchers in Carolyn Bertozzi’s laboratory have recently elucidated the biosynthetic pathway for the most abundant virulence factor in M. tuberculosis, the bacterial pathogen that causes TB. The virulence factor is a molecule termed sulfolipid-1, and in the critical first step in its synthetic pathway sulfates are added to the core sugar moieties of SL-1 by an enzyme that Bertozzi’s lab discovered and named “Stf0.” Researchers in the Bertozzi lab have determined the three-dimensional structure of Stf0 and are using this information in the design of drugs that block the enzyme and, thus, the production of SL-1. This work may lead to new avenues for anti-TB therapy.

Dissecting the immune synapse with nanotechnology
There are not enough drugs to treat autoimmune diseases, and most current therapies address the symptoms rather than the cause because the immune system is tremendously complex. Jay Groves and his colleagues recently discovered that T-cells perform their surveillance by forming a specialized junction with the target cell. In this junction, proteins and signaling molecules become arranged in spatial patterns, and these patterns seem to convey information. Groves and his colleagues are creating hybrid junctions between living cells and nanofabricated chip substrates, which allow them to impose spatial constraints on the motion of signaling molecules in living T-cells and probe the role of geometrical patterns in the function of the immune system.

Potassium channels
Over the last couple of years, Dirk Trauner has succeeded in rendering certain potassium channels sensitive to light, allowing him and his group to create nerve cells (neurons) that change their firing-pattern upon irradiation. Recently, a small organic molecule that functions like a light-switch was covalently mounted onto the extracellular surface of a potassium channel fine-tuned by genetic engineering. In its extended conformation, the molecule blocks the pore of the channel. Upon irradiation with UV light, it changes geometrically, restoring the conductance of the channel. The channel can be expressed in cells and switched repeatedly between its blocked and open state. Even more significantly, hippocampal neurons expressing the chemically modified channels can be silenced upon irradiation. This system could ultimately lead to the development of an artificial retina.

New system to facilitate faculty awards
Thanks to the hard work of Professor Robert Bergman and staff members Christine Rutkowski, and John Ingham, the department now has a streamlined way to nominate our faculty members for major awards and track the process internally. The new database-driven system is web-accessible, allowing nominators to work from afar and is useful as our faculty are always on the go.

Recent awards
Congratulations to our award-garnering faculty.

  • Paul Alivisatos was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the AAAS (more info)
  • Carolyn Bertozzi is the 2004 recipient of the Iota Sigma Pi Agnes Fay Morgan Research Award
  • Carlos Bustamante was awarded the Alexander Hollaender Award in Biophysics from the NAS
  • Dirk Trauner is an Alfred P. Sloan Fellow this year and also received the Amgen Young Investigator Award
  • Haw Yang received a NSF CAREER Award, a prestigious award for young faculty
  • Peidong Yang won the MRS Outstanding Young Investigator Award
  • Evan Willams won the Amgen Faculty Award
  • Dr. Frantisek Svec, a senior researcher with Jean Fréchet, was elected President of the California Separation Science Society



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