Research Overview


In our research, we are primarily interested in
        (a) force fields for efficiently simulating chemical reactions in complex environments,
        (b) control of water by gas vesicle proteins for buoyance in unicellular organisms,
        (c) active ion transport by membrane proteins for energy storage and homeostasis,
        (d) prebiotic chemistry leading to macromolecules, and
        (e) control of cell shape and cell motility by cytoskeletal filament organization.
Our primary tools are statistical thermodynamics and solid state NMR.

Molecular simulations have become increasingly important in interpreting experimental results, generating new hypotheses, and planning experiments. For molecular structure and dynamics, a host of molecular mechanics approaches have become quite effective. However, the options for simulating chemical reactions typically involve either extremely computation-intensive ab initio treatments of explicit electrons or awkward add-ons to make, break or polarize bonds in atom-only molecular mechanics descriptions. We have pursued an approach that side-steps the ab initio calculations, but unpacks molecules into independently mobile, pseudo-classical valence electron pairs (shown here in green) and nuclear cores (shown here in red for oxygen and white for hydrogen). The key to this approach is absorbing the quantum mechanical effects into computationally efficient pair-wise interactions among electron pairs and between electron pairs and nuclei. Recent results show that this approach provides a structurally and thermodynamically sound description of the amphiproticity of water monomers and clusters (illustrated here by Grotthuss transport). Furthermore, liquid water is structurally and dynamically well-represented, and molecules become more polar, as expected, in the bulk liquid. The solvation and dynamics of proton defects in bulk water are also well-described. Generalization to include carbon cores extends the variety of systems that can be studied. In hot liquid methanol, an excess proton catalyzes dehydration to form dimethyl ethers. In gas-phase simulations, oxirane is attacked by the nucleophilic methoxide, leading to ring opening and ether alcohol formation. Future efforts will include work on proteins that facilitate proton transport and chemical reactions.

Selected publications

Gas vesicles present a particularly intriguing protein folding problem. Their thin shells must withstand considerable pressure while presenting a highly hydrophobic interior surface to prevent the condensation of permeating water vapor. But it is difficult to imagine how such a shell is created by the self-association of many small (7 kDa) subunits. Gas vesicles also have significant similarities with amyloid fibers: they are not dissolved by detergents and beta-sheet is a prominent, conserved feature. Yet, the host organisms can recycle the subunits, indicating that they are able to reversibly disassemble the gas vesicles. The potential for controlling amyloid pathologies might be enhanced by understanding how aquatic organisms manage their gas vesicle subunits. To determine the structure of gas vesicles, we employ recently developed multi-dimensional solid-state NMR methods. Resonances are assigned by homo- and hetero-nuclear correlations, and structural constraints are obtained by measuring dipolar interactions that reflect internuclear distances. Recent results point to an asymmetric dimer as the fundamental bulding block of the vesicles.

Selected publications


Many micro-organisms produce retinal containing membrane proteins similar to the mammalian visual pigments. These rhodopsins include energy transducers that use light to drive ion transport, as well as signal transducers that use light to stimulate phototaxis. The rhodopsins are thus light-driven analogues of the chemically-driven energy transducers (membrane ATPases) and signal transducers (hormone receptors) found in mammalian cells. The first rhodopsin to be discovered in a unicellular organism (known therefore as bacteriorhodopsin) undergoes a photocycle in which an ion is released on one side of the membrane and replaced from the other side of the membrane. Thus, light is used to create an electrochemical potential gradient across the membrane that the cell can use to drive other processes. To study bacteriorhodopsin in the native membrane, we employ solid-state NMR methods that achieve the high resolution of solution spectra while preserving the three-dimensional information of powder spectra. The results are interpreted empirically using data from model compounds and theoretically via quantum mechanical calculations. Specifically, we are probing the detailed features of the photocycle intermediates that enforce unidirectional ion transport. Recent results point to the release of photon-induced torsion in the chromophore as responsible for the switch in hydrogen bond connections that prevents ion backflow. Other recent results suggest that bacteriorhodopsin may be an inwardly-driven hydroxyl pump rather than an outwardly-driven proton pump.

Selected publications


Scenarios for the origins of life begin with the abiotic formation of biologically significant molecules from simple inorganic precursors. Much of our current understanding of this prebiotic chemistry relates to small molecules. However, polymers (as in the insoluble "gunk" accumulated in the famous Miller-Urey experiment) are also thought to have played significant roles. For example, HCN, which is thought to have been abundant in the prebiotic environment, spontaneously forms polymers that have been the focus of much speculation. Using the unique probes afforded by solid state NMR, we have been able to identify three different types of HCN polymers, all of which are unlike any of the structures that have been previously proposed. Sugars, another large class of prebiotically abundant molecules, also form polymers readily under conditions that form fruan and pyrrole units. Here again, solid state NMR has shown that the linkages between the heterocycles are not as previously proposed.

Selected publications

Cytoskeletal proteins have been the subject of intense experimental scrutiny. Of particular interest is the molecular basis for the spatial organization of cytoskeletal fibers in cells. Typically it is assumed that protein polymers should be randomly disposed in solution and that the non-random organization of cytoskeletal fibers must be due to the effects of various accessory binding proteins. However, the cytosol is a very crowded, and therefore highly non-ideal, solution. Under these circumstances, the theory of liquid crystals tells us that elongated particles may spontaneously align, coalesce into bundles, and form gels. We adapt these theories to heterogeneous systems with self-assembling fibers to characterize the various mechanisms by which cells can control the spatial arrangement of cytoskeletal elements. We find that, under physiological conditions, long filaments are not only predicted to form bundles spontaneously, but these bundles will be spontaneously segregated according to the diameters and flexibilities of the filaments. The function of cross-linking by "bundling proteins" therefore appears to be only to fine tune the bundles (e.g., as to polarity and registration). The theory also predicts that the cell can prevent crowding-induced bundling by using its capping proteins to reduce the lengths of the filaments. And it can frustrate bundling and form a gel by using other accessory proteins that cross-link filaments in orthogonal configurations.

Selected publications