‘The foundation for discovery’
Department of biochemistry and molecular biology provides road map for research in molecular life sciences
April 1, 2023 — For Matthew S. Gentry, Ph.D., working in the field of biochemistry and molecular biology is like being a subcellular mechanic. If cells and tissues are the engine, then scientists are the ones striving to decipher how it works, what is broken and how to fix it to get the car back on the road.
“We provide the foundation for discovery in the molecular life sciences,” said Gentry, who joined the UF College of Medicine as chair of the department of biochemistry and molecular biology in August. “We look at everything from the atomic level to the entire organism and everything in between. At the atomic level, we are determining what proteins do, what fats do, what sugars do and what nucleic acids do. Once you understand how those four entities interact and can define how the cell functions, you can identify what goes wrong in a disease and start to develop therapeutic targets.”
With three main pillars of focus, support from UF and UF Health leadership and a new chair in place, the department of biochemistry and molecular biology is poised to grow its interdisciplinary research endeavors, train the next generation of scientists and build upon its culture of collaboration and innovation.
“We strive to conduct world-class science, publish in top-tier journals, increase the grant portfolio to a top federally funded department and attract trainees who want access to leading-edge research facilities to collaborate and complement each other,” Gentry said. “We want to do that in a way where we challenge each other while still being supportive, having an inclusive environment where we all bring our ideas to the table.”
Learn more about the department of biochemistry and molecular biology’s three best-in-class research pillars below.
Pillar 1: Nucleic acids
Nucleic acids are naturally occurring chemical compounds that carry information and make up genetic material: DNA and RNA. They are the “information passport” of the cell.
Several faculty members in the department are focused on defining the process by which cells make genetic material: Linda B. Bloom, Ph.D., Jorg Bungert, Ph.D., Melike Caglayan, Ph.D., James B. Flanegan, Ph.D., Michael Kladde, Ph.D., Jianrong J. Lu, Ph.D., and Mingyi Xie, Ph.D. Recent highlights from this pillar include:
- Professor Bloom studies replicating DNA, and her lab is home to Florida’s only C-Trap, a machine that conducts single-molecule microscopy to allow scientists to levitate a single molecule with a laser in real-time, see the small particles and quantify how tightly they are bound.
- Assistant professor Caglayan has published recent high-impact work focused on how cells keep from making DNA errors and how cells fix those errors when they occur.
- Associate professor Xie has made key discoveries in the emerging field of microRNA, which regulates a multitude of cellular processes, many of which are still being discovered.
Pillar 2: Structural biology
Scientists who study structural biology focus on how biological molecules are built, viewing these molecules in three dimensions to better understand how they are assembled, how they operate and how they interact.
Faculty in the department who focus on this field of study are Bloom, Caglayan, Gentry, Joanna R. Long, Ph.D., Robert McKenna, Ph.D., and Craig W. Vander Kooi, Ph.D. Recent highlights from this pillar include:
- Professor Long leads the Advanced Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Spectroscopy, or AMRIS, Facility, a National Science Foundation-funded National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in the Evelyn F. and William L. McKnight Brain Institute that attracts researchers from around the world with technology that allows scientists to visualize proteins and organisms at the atomic level.
- Professor McKenna, a leader in the field of structural biochemistry, uses cryo-electron microscopy to define atomic and subatomic insights for adeno-associated viruses, or AAVs, vectors used in gene therapy to treat a variety of genetic diseases.
Pillar 3: Metabolism
In the human body, cells and tissues receive energy from metabolites. When a person experiences an illness, these disease processes change their metabolic profile.
Faculty who dedicate their time to understanding these changes and their implications on health are Lauren G. Douma, Ph.D., Gentry, Long, Thomas H. Mareci, Ph.D., Matthew E. Merritt, Ph.D., Daniel L. Purich, Ph.D., Ramon C. Sun, Ph.D., and Vander Kooi. Recent highlights from this pillar of study include:
- Associate professor Merritt, who serves as the associate director of AMRIS, is defining metabolic signatures and developing preclinical methods to better diagnose non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and brain metabolism.
- Associate professor Sun is at the forefront of developing new technologies and using matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization to define spatial metabolic signatures, gaining insights for novel therapies for rare diseases that can also offer groundbreaking insights for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and cancer. Sun is also launching the Center for Advanced Spatial Biomolecule Research, or CASBR.
- Gentry investigates and defines metabolic perturbations in neurodegenerative diseases, epilepsy, cancer, glycogen storage diseases and Toxoplasma gondii infection, and focuses on translating these findings into effective therapeutics.
Gentry said joining the UF community has led to collaborations and connections that not only drive his department’s work forward, but his own research as well.
“It has been a pleasure to join a department with an atmosphere where people felt respected and could share ideas,” he said. “I want to build on that and bring in new technologies because scientists want fancy toys to make exciting discoveries. At UF, doors have always been open. When you reach out to someone, they’re interested in seeing how you can work together. It’s a scientific playground of discoveries to be made.”