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Laboratory of Structural Biology Undergoes Scientific Review

By Robin Arnette
August 2008

Laboratory of Structural Biology Chief Thomas Kunkel
Laboratory of Structural Biology Chief Thomas Kunkel (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Board Chair Belinsky, center, and Akiyama, right, enjoyed one of the lighter moments of the presentations.
Board Chair Belinsky, center, and Akiyama, right, enjoyed one of the lighter moments of the presentations. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Tomer, shown above, left the podium as he described the accomplishments of the Mass Spectrometry Group.
Tomer, shown above, left the podium as he described the accomplishments of the Mass Spectrometry Group. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

BSC member and York University Department of Chemistry Research Chair Michael Siu, Ph.D., center, and Kunkel, right with yellow tie, listened intently as LSB group heads explained their work. Shown to the left of Siu is LSB NMR contractor Eugene DeRose, Ph.D.
BSC member and York University Department of Chemistry Research Chair Michael Siu, Ph.D., center, and Kunkel, right with yellow tie, listened intently as LSB group heads explained their work. Shown to the left of Siu is LSB NMR contractor Eugene DeRose, Ph.D. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Board member Joann Sweasy, Ph.D., center, who presented a Genetics Training Action Committee invited lecture at NIEHS in April, found herself on the other side of the podium during the review.
Board member Joann Sweasy, Ph.D., center, who presented a Genetics Training Action Committee invited lecture at NIEHS in April, found herself on the other side of the podium during the review. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Every four years laboratories at NIEHS meet with their Board of Scientific Counselors (BSC) to ensure that the labs are carrying out sound hypothesis-based research. On July 21-22 in Rodbell Auditorium, the Laboratory of Structural Biology (LSB (http://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/atniehs/labs/lsb/index.cfm)) underwent its review to provide a thorough examination of the lab's studies, programs and core facilities.

This year's LSB BSC Review Board was comprised of 12 members, 10 scientists from outside institutions and two from NIEHS, Acting Scientific Director Perry Blackshear, M.D., D.Phil., and Deputy Scientific Director Steven Akiyama, Ph.D. Chairing the Board was Steven Belinksy, Ph.D. (http://www.lrri.org/ScientistInfo.aspx?S=13) Exit NIEHS Website, head of the Lung Cancer Program at the Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute in Albuquerque, N.M. Board members and an audience made up of NIEHS scientists were treated to talks by LSB researchers during morning and afternoon sessions. The afternoon poster session was also open to the public.

Prior to the presentations, NIEHS Acting Director Samuel Wilson, M.D. gave a brief welcome address and thanked BSC members on behalf of the institute. "I can't say enough to express our appreciation for your taking time to participate in this incredibly important peer-review activity," he said. LSB Lab Chief Thomas Kunkel, Ph.D., followed Wilson with an overview of ongoing projects.

The mission of LSB is to provide insight into biological processes that modulate the effects of environmental exposures on human health. To accomplish this goal, the lab combines biochemical and genetic approaches with X-ray crystallography, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), mass spectrometry and computational chemistry to investigate the structures of macromolecules at the atomic level.

Robert London, Ph.D., head of the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) Group, gave the first presentation and talked about his group's interest in enzymes involved in DNA replication or repair and ligand-macromolecule interactions. He said, "An understanding of these DNA replication and repair mechanisms provides insight into how damage produced by physical or chemical agents is dealt with in humans and other living systems."

The Mass Spectrometry Group, led by Kenneth Tomer, Ph.D., studies biomolecules related to immunological or inflammatory response to exposures and biomolecules damaged by environmental exposures or those involved in their repair. He believes that his work will lead to a better understanding of the biological responses initiated by environmental exposures and possibly how to prevent the damage.

The study of the structure and function of macromolecules involved in post-transcriptional gene regulation is the aim of the Macromolecular Structure Group, directed by Traci M.T. Hall, Ph.D. Hall said that although the general public may have a hard time understanding the research, the group's experiments "will lead to an appreciation for how these gene regulatory pathways are important in human biology and diseases."

The Computational Chemistry & Molecular Modeling Group, led by Thomas Darden, Ph.D., develops tools that aid in the understanding of structural, mutational and sequence data. Scientists use these tools to help other NIEHS investigators in their scientific endeavors.

In addition to their work as a whole, LSB is proud of its training programs, in particular the Second Mentor Program, which allows LSB fellows to name an additional principal investigator who can provide advice on all areas of professional development as well as impart scientific guidance.

The Board had several closed sessions following the open session and adjourned the meeting the next day. Belinsky said he was pleased to have chaired the review and placed the Board's purpose into context. "Providing feedback is a very important component of the NIEHS because it helps the investigators maintain an excellent level of research," he explained. "It really preserves the future of environmental health science."

Kunkel concurred and spoke on behalf of LSB. "Thoughtful peer-review is critical to success in science, and for this reason, all members of LSB are very grateful to members of the BSC for their time, careful deliberations and advice," he said. "I also want to thank Perry Blackshear and Steve Akiyama for their time and efforts."



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