Tenure track faculty position, Biochemistry

The Department of Biochemistry at Brandeis University invites applications for a tenure-track faculty position, to begin Fall, 2013. We are searching for a creative scientist who will establish an independent research program and who in addition will maintain a strong interest in teaching Biochemistry at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The research program should address fundamental questions of biological, biochemical, or biophysical mechanism.

Brandeis University offers the rare combination of a vigorous research institution in a liberal-arts college setting. The suburban campus is located 20 minutes from Boston and Cambridge and is part of the vibrant community of academic and biotechnology centers in the Boston area.

The application should include a cover letter, curriculum vitae, statement of research accomplishments and future plans, and three letters of reference. Applications will be accepted only through https://academicjobsonline.org/ajo/jobs/1813. Additional inquiries may be directed to Chris Miller, Professor of Biochemistry (cmiller@brandeis.edu).

First consideration will be given to applications received by December 1, 2012. Brandeis University is an Equal Opportunity Employer, committed to building a culturally diverse intellectual community. We particularly welcome applications from women and minority candidates.

Hagan to receive Strage Award

On March 26, 2012, Professor Gregory A. Petsko wrote on behalf of the Strage Award Selection Committee:

It is with great pleasure that I announce the recipient of this year’s Strage Award for Aspiring Young Science Faculty, Dr. Michael Hagan of the Physics Department.

Mike is one of Brandeis’ most accomplished young faculty members. His work has focused largely on the factors that govern self-assembly – the ability of macromolecular systems to form organized structures spontaneously. This is at the heart of the development of complexity, not just in living organisms but also in nanotechnology. Please join me in congratulating Mike on winning this award, and bring your students and postdocs to his Strage Award Lecture.

The award ceremony and lecture will take place on Monday, April 16, in Abelson 131, at 12 :30 p.m. The title of the lecture is Mechanisms of Virus Assembly.

Barry awarded Joseph Katz Fellowship from Argonne Natl Lab

Edward Francis Barry (PhD ’11) has recently been awarded the prestigious Argonne Scholar-Joseph Katz Postdoctoral Fellowship at Argonne National Laboratory. Ed began his scientific career studying the self-assembly of fd virus with Zvonimir Dogic, during the latter’s Junior Fellowship at the Rowland Institute at Harvard University. When Dogic joined the physics faculty at Brandeis, Ed also came to Brandeis as a Ph.D. student and helped to start the Dogic lab. Ed published seven papers describing various novel assemblages found in the fd system. Most notably, his 2010 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper describing the physical properties of colloidal membranes won the 2010 Cozzarelli Prize for scientific excellence. As the Katz fellow, Ed will be working between Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago, where he is working with Experimental Condensed Matter Professor Heinrich Jaeger studying the self-assembly of monolayers composed of nanoparticles.


Escaping the Lattice

The next best thing to seeing real atoms is to mimic them in silico: we assign interactions between the atoms and then — pouf –They’re alive!

The number of particles in a visible sample is on the order of Avogadro’s constant, say ~1023, whereas a fairly muscular computer can only follow ~105-107 atoms at a time. To compensate, computational scientists typically replicate their simulation boxes infinitely in space. This creates a quandary for calculating forces across replication boxes. The simplest option, which is to neglect forces beyond a chosen cut-off, suffices for many interactions, is too crude for the particularly long-range interactions that occur between charges. To accurately account for these interactions, it is customary to use a clever 90-year-old (!) technique, called the Ewald sum.(1)

The problem with the Ewald sum is that it requires imposing a long-range periodicity that is inappropriately short for macromolecules.(2) To avoid artifacts, a number of alternatives have been suggested. One intuitive approach, called “force shifting”, smooths the interaction energy and its first derivative (the force) at the chosen cutoff. However, this creates new artifacts (see figure) when particles have very large or varying charges, as in some ionic liquids. Brandeis scientists Seyit Kale and Judith Herzfeld, have found that this problem can be solved by also smoothing the second derivative of the interaction energy (the acceleration).(3)  This approach performs virtually as well as the Ewald sum in a new reactive force field that they have been developing (see figure).

The neighbor frequencies for bulk water calculated with force shifting at a cutoff of 9 Å (red) and 12 Å (magenta) versus with the authors’ new approach at a 9 Å cutoff (blue) and the Ewald sum (black). The blue and black curves are virtually the same while the red and magenta curves contain artifacts. The inset shows a representation of a water molecule from the force field that the authors are developing.

  1. Ewald P (1921) The Berechnung optischer und elektrostatischer Gitterpotentiale. Ann. Phys. 369: 253-287.
  2. Hunenberger PH, McCammon JA (1999) Effect of artificial periodicity in simulations of biomolecules under Ewald boundary conditions: A continuum electrostatics study. Biophys. Chem. 78: 69-88.
  3. Kale S, Herzfeld J (2011) Pairwise Long-range Compensation for Strongly Ionic Systems. J. Chem. Theory Comput. 7: 3620-3624.

Microtubules and Molecular Motors Do The Wave

Most people are familiar with audiences in crowded arenas performing “the wave,” raising their hands in sync to produce a pattern that propagates around the whole stadium.  This self-organized motion appears seemingly out of nowhere.  It is not produced by any external control, but is rather emerges from thousands of individuals interacting only with their neighbors.  A similar principle of self-organization might also be relevant on length scales that are billion times smaller.  On this scale, nanometer-sized proteins interact with each other to produce dynamical structures and patterns that are essential for life—and some of these processes are reminiscent of waves in crowded stadiums.  For example, thousands of nano-sized molecular motors located within a single eukaryotic flagellum or cilium coordinate their activity to produce wave-like beating patterns.  Furthermore, dense arrays of cilia spontaneously synchronize their beating to produce metachronal waves.

Proper functioning of cilia is essential for health; for example, cilia determine the correct polarity and location of our organs during development.  Defective cilia can cause a serious condition called situs inversus, in which the positions of the heart and lungs are mirrored from the normal state.  In another example, thousands of cilia in our lungs function to clear airways of microscopic debris such as dust or smoke by organizing their beating into coordinated, wave-like patterns.  Despite the importance of ciliar function, the exact mechanisms that lead to spontaneous wave-like patterns within isolated cilia, as well as in dense ciliary fields, is not well understood.

In a paper published in the journal Science this week, an interdisciplinary team consisting of physics graduate student Timothy Sanchez and biochemistry graduate student David Welch working with biophysicist Zvonimir Dogic and biologist Daniela Nicastro present a striking finding: the first example of a simple microscopic system that self-organizes to produce cilia-like beating patterns.  Their experimental system consists of three main components: 1) microtubule filaments; 2) motor proteins called kinesin, which consume chemical fuel to move along microtubules; and (3) a bundling agent that induces assembly of filaments into bundles.  Sanchez et al. found that under a certain set of conditions, these very simple components are able to self-organize into active bundles that spontaneously beat in a periodic manner.  One large spontaneously beating bundle is featured below:

In addition to observing the beating of isolated bundles, the researchers were also able to assemble a dense field of bundles that spontaneously synchronized their beating patterns into traveling waves.  An example of this higher-level organization is shown here:

The significance of these observations is several-fold. First, due to the importance of ciliar function for health, there is great interest in elucidating the mechanism that controls the beating patterns of isolated cilia as well as dense ciliary fields.  However, the complexity of these structures presents a major challenge.  Each eukaryotic flagellum and cilium contains more than 600 different proteins.  For this reason, most previous studies of cilia and flagella have employed a top-down approach; they have attempted to elucidate the beating mechanism by deconstructing the fully functioning organelles through the systematic elimination ­­­of constituent proteins. In this study, the researchers utilize an alternative bottom-up approach and demonstrate for the first time that it is possible to construct artificial cilia-like structures from a “minimal system,” comprised of only three components.  These observations suggest that emergent properties, spontaneously arising when microscopic molecular motors interact with each other, might play a role in formation of ciliary beating patterns.

Second, self-organizing processes in general have recently become the focus of considerable interest in the physics community.  These processes range in scale from microscopic cellular functions and swarms of bacteria to macroscopic phenomena such as flocking of birds and manmade traffic jams. Theoretical models indicate that these vastly different phenomena can be described using similar theoretical formalisms.  However, controllable experiments with flocks of birds or crowds at football stadiums are virtually impossible to conduct.  The experiments described by Sanchez et al. could serve as a model system to test a broad range of theoretical predictions. Third, the reproduction of such an essential biological functionality in a simple in vitro system will be of great interest to the fields of cellular and evolutionary biology. Finally, these findings open the door for the development of one of the major goals of nanotechnology: to design motile nano-scale objects.

These encouraging results are only the first from this very new model system.  The Dogic lab is currently planning refinements to the system to study these topics in greater depth.

UPDATE: Today, this publication was additionally featured on NPR Science Friday as the video pick of the week:

 

Prolonging assembly through dissociation

Microtubules are semiflexible polymers that serve as structural components inside the eukaryotic cell and are involved in many cellular processes such as mitosis, cytokinesis, and vesicular transport. In order to perform these functions, microtubules continually rearrange through a process known as dynamic instability, in which they switch from a phase of slow elongation to rapid shortening (catastrophe), and from rapid shortening to growth (rescue). The basic self-assembly mechanism underlying this process, assembly mediated by nucleotide phosphate activity, is omnipresent in biological systems.  A recent paper, Prolonging assembly through dissociation: A self-assembly paradigm in microtubules ,  published in the May 3 issue of Physical Review E,  presents a new paradigm for such self-assembly in which increasing depolymerization rate can enhance assembly.  Such a scenario can occur only out of equilibrium. Brandeis Physics postdoc Sumedha, working with Chakraborty and Hagan, carried out theoretical analysis of a stochastic hydrolysis model to demonstrate the effect and predict features of growth fluctuations, which should be measurable in experiments that probe microtubule dynamics at the nanoscale.

Model for microtuble dynamics. All activity is assumed to occur at the right end of the microtubule (denoted as ">")

The essential features of the model that leads to the counterintuitive result of depolymerization helping assembly are (a) stochastic hydrolysis that allows GTP to transform into GDP  in any part of the microtubule, and (b) a much higher rate of GTP attachment if the end of the microtubule has a GTP-bound tubulin dimer, compared to a GDP-bound tubulin dimer.    Process (a) leads to islands of GTP-bound tubulins to be buried deep in the microtubule.   Depolymerization from the end reveals these islands and enhances assembly because of the biased attachment rate (b).  The simplicity of the model lent itself to analytical results for various aspects of the growth statistics in particular parameter regimes.   Simulations of the model supported these analytical results, and extended them to regimes where it was not possible to solve the model analytically.  The statistics of the growth fluctuations in this stochastic hydrolysis model are very different from “cap models” which do not have GTP remnants buried inside a growing microtubule.   Testing the predictions in experiments could, therefore, lead to a better understanding of the processes underlying dynamical instability in-vivo and in-vitro.   An interesting question to explore is whether the bias in the attachment rates is different under different conditions of microtubule growth.

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