In the News

Revised Fall 2020 Reopening Plan

Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy has revised the university’s Fall 2020 Reopening Plan. 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.

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.

Farkas Named Scialog Fellow

Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA) has named Michelle Farkas, chemistry, one of 13 new Fellows for its Scialog: Chemical Machinery of the Cell (CMC) initiative.

Co-sponsored by RCSA and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Scialog: Chemical Machinery of the Cell aims to catalyze breakthroughs in our understanding of chemical processes in the living cell that will lead to a new era of advancement in cell biology.

The new early-career researchers, together with Fellows selected in the previous two years, will convene virtually Oct. 9, for a half-day meeting. The final in-person CMC conference is scheduled for Oct. 7 – 10, 2021, in Tucson, Ariz.

“It’s terrific to have 13 new Fellows join this outstanding community of rising stars,” said senior program director Richard Wiener. Scialog is short for “science + dialog.” As part of each multiyear initiative, a diverse and inclusive cohort of Fellows is selected from multiple disciplines and institutions across the U.S. and Canada to maximize creative thinking and innovative ideas.

At each conference, participants form multidisciplinary teams to design research projects, which they pitch to leading scientists who have facilitated discussions throughout the meeting. A committee of these facilitators then recommends seed funding to catalyze the most promising of those team projects.

“Even though we can’t meet in person in 2020, we’re excited to keep the community engaged virtually to think of new, potentially high-impact ideas to advance our understanding of cellular processes,” Wiener added. “That momentum will carry us into our final CMC conference and a final round of funding next year.”

Artificial Energy Source for Muscle

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.

Full article

A New Role for a Tiny Linker in Transmembrane Ion Channels

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.

Full article

Acquah Awarded Second Place in Nobel Laureates Sciathion

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.

2020 Undergraduate Awards

The department hosted a virtual Undergraduate Awards Ceremony on May 7th via Zoom.

Students and their families were joined by faculty, staff, donors, and Dean Serio. While the applause and experience were virtual, the appreciation and gratitude towards our students and donors is sincere.

We are so proud of our students for their amazing ability to excel under such unusual circumstances!

Computational Techniques Developed to Explore ‘The Dark Side of Amyloid Aggregation in the Brain’

Alzheimer’s disease has been intensely studied for decades, too much is still not known about molecular processes in the brain that cause it. Chemistry Professor Jianhan Chen says new insights from analytic theory and molecular simulation techniques offer a better understanding of amyloid fibril growth and brain pathology.

As senior author Chen notes, the “amyloid hypothesis” was promising – amyloid protein fibrils are a central feature in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases. “But the process is really difficult to study,” he says. Chen and first author Zhiguang Jia, a research scientist in Chen’s computational biophysics lab, explored how building-block peptides form fibrils. “We are really proud of this work because, to the best of our knowledge, for the first time we have described the comprehensive process of how fibril growth can happen. We illustrate that the effects of disease-causing mutations often arise from the cumulative effects of many small perturbations. A comprehensive description is absolutely critical to generate reliable and testable hypothesis,” he adds. Details of their multi-scale approach with many atomistic simulations are in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

‘Smart Swab’ Detector for COVID By-products

Sankaran "Thai" Thayumanavan, Jeanne Hardy and Trisha L. Andrew received a one-year RAPID grant from the National Science Foundation, to investigate whether they can develop a simple, color-changing test swab for COVID-19 in the next year that would alert users if their body carries a viral product left after infection. RAPID supports proposals “having a severe urgency with regard to availability of, or access to data, facilities or specialized equipment, including quick-response research on natural or anthropogenic disasters and similar unanticipated events.”

The three researchers bring complementary expertise to the team, and are seeking “a cheap test that will tell if you should get checked by medical professionals because you are probably infected,” said Thayumanavan. Andrew adds, “Like a pregnancy test, but for viral infection.”

They stress that this is a research effort. “We are being very careful to point out that we are working on a general solution for detecting viral infections, which can be easily customized to specific viruses and then rapidly mobilized in times of dire need,” says Hardy. Andrew adds, “We are building up the basic science and chemistry needed for anyone to rapidly mass-produce tests that can be used at home. This concept certainly applies to the current COVID-19 pandemic but can also be relevant to future outbreaks.”

Congratulations, Chemistry Seniors!

We can’t express enough how proud we are of our 2020 chemistry graduates! Students showed remarkable resilience adapting to new learning environments, and demonstrated amazing creativity with remote research.

Graduations are milestones best experienced in a social context, but with physical distancing measures putting the in-person ceremonies on hold, we hope you will join us for Chemistry’s Virtual Senior Recognition on May 8th, starting at 2pm, prior to the university’s 4:30pm virtual celebration. CNS will launch a Senior Celebration page with well wishes and online activities at 8am on May 8th, so be sure to connect with UMass throughout the day.

Friends of the graduates, students, alumni, faculty, and staff can share their well-wishes and congratulations to the graduates by sharing photos and video clips to CNS Communications at cnscomm@umass.edu by noontime, Monday, May 4th.

 

Two Chemistry Students Recognized by NSF GRFP

Big News! Two Chemistry students have been recognized by the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program.

Congratulations to Isabella Jaen Maisonet for her award of an NSF GRFP fellowship! Isabella is an undergraduate currently working with Mike Knapp’s group, and will will start grad school this Fall in the Chemical Biology PhD program at Harvard.

Congratulations to Kaitlyn Chhe, honorable mention in the NSF GRFP competition! Kaitlyn is a graduate student working with Michelle Farkas’s group. The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program is a highly competitive national program recognizing outstanding students.

It is amazing that two of our students have been recognized in the same year.

Martin Lab Receives Acorn Innovation Fund Award

The Martin lab has received an award from the Massachusetts Technology Transfer Center Acorn Innovation Fund. This award “is intended to support the demonstration of the viability of a technology developed at Massachusetts research universities.” From RNA vaccines to mRNA therapeutics, RNA is poised to revolutionize the treatment and prevention of a wide variety of disorders and diseases, but deficiencies in its laboratory synthesis are holding back applications. Building on recently published work, the Martin lab is leveraging its extensive experience in fundamental mechanisms in transcription to develop dramatically improved approaches towards the enzymatic synthesis of this key molecule. This Acorn Award is supporting the development of a flow synthesis approach, with the immediate aim of demonstrating a path forward to high quality, high yield RNA. A wide variety of new RNA therapeutics lie on the horizon today. From mRNA-based therapeutics, to RNA-guided technologies such as CRISPR, to RNA “logic gate” smart therapeutics. Enabling research in the Martin lab aims to overcome current limitations in the implementation of these exciting technologies.

UMass Amherst Chemistry Remote Instruction

UMass Amherst transitioned to remote-learning instruction using web, video and teleconferencing tools as of Monday, March 23rd, due to the coronavirus.

Course instructors are the primary contact. Students enrolled in chemistry courses, including labs, should closely monitor email, Moodle, and/or other modes of communication from their instructors. Faculty will use various programs and tools to tailor online learning methods to their course material and lab experiments.

Undergraduate Researchers are NOT expected to report to laboratories. This includes students enrolled in practicum, independent study, honors capstone experiences, etc.

Additional campus information can be found at UMass Amherst Response to the Coronavirus (COVID-19).

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