Recent News

A chemist and kinesiologist got on a bus, but this isn’t the set-up to a joke. Instead, kinesiologist and lead author Ned Debold and chemist Dhandapani Venkataraman, “DV,” began talking on their bus commute to the University of Massachusetts Amherst and discovered their mutual interest in how energy is converted from one form to another – for Debold, in muscle tissue and for DV, in solar cells.

An alternative energy source to replace the body’s usual one, a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP, could control muscle activity, and might lead to new muscle spasm-calming treatments in cerebral palsy, for example, or activate or enhance skeletal muscle function in MS, ALS and chronic heart failure.

The usual approach to seeking a new compound is to systematically test each one among millions until one seems worth followup – the classic “needle in a haystack” says DV. “At one point I suggested to Ned, ‘Why don’t we build the needle ourselves instead?’ That started us on this interesting project that put together people who would otherwise never work together.” Computational chemist, Jianhan Chen, was invited to model interactions between the molecules DV was making and the myosin molecules Debold was using to test them.

Chen explains, “We did computer modeling because experimentally it is difficult to know how myosin might be using the molecules DV was synthesizing. We can use computer simulation to provide a detailed picture at the molecular level to understand why these compounds might have certain effects. This can provide insight into not only how myosin interacts with the current set of compounds, but also it can provide a roadmap for DV to use to design new compounds that are even more effective at altering myosin function.”

This month, the researchers report in the Biophysical Journal that they have made a series of synthetic compounds to serve as alternative energy sources for the muscle protein myosin, and that myosin can use this new energy source to generate force and velocity. Mike Woodward from the Debold lab is the first author of their paper and Xiaorong Liu from the Chen lab performed the computer simulation.

The next stage for the trio will be to map the process at various points in myosin’s biochemical cycle.

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In the molecular-level world of ion channels – passageways through membranes that carry signals in a cell’s environment and allow it to respond – researchers have debated about the role of a small piece of the channel called a linker, says computational biophysicist Jianhan Chen.

The linker communicates between the pore and its environment-sensing apparatus, and knowing its function – whether it’s inert or plays an active sensing role – has been unclear. But it might lead to a new target for drugs and treatment in conditions such as hypertension, autism, epilepsy, stroke and asthma, he adds. Now, Chen and colleagues at Washington University report in eLife that their experiments have revealed “the first direct example of how non-specific membrane interactions of a covalent linker can regulate the activation of a biological ion channel.”

Specifically, Chen and co-first authors Mahdieh Yazdani and Zhiguang Jia at UMass Chemistry, with co-first author Guohui Zhang, Jingyi Shi and Jianmin Cui at Washington University, studied a pore called the large-conductance potassium (BK) channel. It is important in muscle and neuron function and is controlled by calcium concentration via a calcium-sensing domain. It is also controlled by electrical potential through a voltage-sensing domain. Either way, it opens and closes like a gate – “a really common architecture in transmembrane receptors and channels,” Chen says.

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Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy has released the university’s Fall 2020 Reopening Plan, which details how the fall semester will proceed amid the COVID-19 pandemic. For more information and to read the comprehensive report, FAQs and other materials, go to umass.edu/reopening.

The university is using the best science and public health information available to protect members of the campus community; efforts are focused on mitigating the risk of infection and spread of the virus. We are relying upon the guidance and direction of the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC), local, state, and federal health and medical professionals in setting our campus reopening and return to campus plans, and in determining the elements of our reopening and return to campus plans.

The newly created Public Health Promotion Center will serve as the campus coordinating and operational hub for COVID-19 mitigation efforts. Its focus is to positively influence public health behaviors, provide critical health screening, and monitor protocols to maintain the health and wellness of our campus community. As part of these efforts, we are implementing a multi-layered approach to deter the spread of the virus, help protect our campus, and allow us to rapidly respond when faculty, staff, or students present symptoms or test positive for the virus.

During the first 48-hour Sciathon hosted by the Council for the Nobel Laureate Meetings, Steve Acquah, the UMass Amherst Libraries Digital Media Lab coordinator and associate research professor of chemistry, worked as part of a team (Group Clifton) to develop a science news verification tool, authentiSci. The Clifton group became finalists at the end of June and were recently awarded second place in the category of ‘Lindau Guidelines’ and a shared prize of 1,000 Euros. AuthentiSci can be accessed through the website authentisci.com and will primarily be used through a Google Chrome Extension, which is now available at the Chrome Web Store. The extension is one of the first of its kind that gives scientists the ability to score science news stories, providing a measure of confidence for the reader.

The section of the Lindau Guidelines had the highest amount of competition, with 23 out of the 48 groups working on Lindau Guideline based projects. The other project sections focused on the topics Communicating Climate Change and Capitalism After Corona.

The extension was produced in response to the Lindau Guidelines introduced by Elizabeth Blackburn during the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting held in Lindau, Germany, in June 2018. To use the extension, scientists would authenticate through their ORCID account, insert a URL from a news story, and follow the prompts to evaluate the story on authentisci.com. With the extension now available, people from around the world will be able to see verified news stories.

Acquah produced a video during the 48-hour event highlighting the work of the team.

Upcoming Events

Elvan Cavaç
Dissertation Defense
Thursday, August 20, 2020

"Novel Approaches Towards Improved Purity in High Yield Transcription Reactions"

12:00 noon
Zoom TBA
Research Adviser:
Craig Martin
Mahdieh Yazdani
Dissertation Defense
Tuesday, August 25, 2020

"Understanding the gating of big potassium channels using atomistic simulations"

10:00 am
Zoom: TBA
Research Adviser:
Jianhan Chen