Chemists have become extremely adept at characterizing biology’s molecules—at determining structures and investigating the roles of individual membrane proteins or cell receptors, for example. But molecules in a living cell rarely work alone. They constantly receive chemical and physical signals from other molecules and, in turn, communicate with still others. If such interactions fail to take place, bad things can happen to the cell and, often, to the organism.
Acknowledging the importance of that interactivity, and with $6 million of funding from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) has established a new center dedicated to understanding the intricacies of cellular signaling. The Chemistry of Cellular Signaling Center will build on Caltech’s successes at the interface of chemistry and biology, and will focus on determining how complex systems of molecules interact to create the pathways that regulate the lives of cells and allow them to respond to their environments.
“At the center, we’re trying to go to this next level where we don’t just study a complex biomolecule in isolation, but we try to understand how it is part of a larger path of molecules,” says Dennis Dougherty, the George Grant Hoag Professor of Chemistry at Caltech and director of the new center. “We want to understand molecule-to-molecule interactions, and then, how they create signaling paths.”
The new center draws on the expertise of six faculty members from the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering: Dougherty; division chair Jacqueline Barton, the Arthur and Marian Hanisch Memorial Professor; Peter Dervan, the Bren Professor of Chemistry; Linda Hsieh-Wilson, a professor of chemistry who is also an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute; Shu-ou Shan, a professor of chemistry; and Long Cai, an assistant professor of chemistry.
These researchers’ groups have already been working to understand the various aspects of the cellular machinery that make signaling possible—from the delivery of a message, to the changes such a message initiates within the cell, to the propagation of the message to other cells. The new center is looking to draw on common research strategies and equipment to produce a more holistic view of cellular signaling.
The goal is for the center to become a hub for all things related to the chemistry of signaling, says Dougherty, and to get the different groups talking to each other more consistently.
“That cross-fertilization of ideas always leads to new opportunities,” he says. “The real action happens when the students get together and start to talk about what they’re working on. That’s always a good way to get things going.”
“We are so grateful to the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation for supporting this new center,” says Jacqueline Barton, chair of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. “Bringing together these groups and especially these students gives us a chance to look at the interplay of chemistry within the cell and between cells in a completely new way. What will emerge will definitely be more than the sum of the parts.”
What may emerge from an enhanced understanding of cellular signaling, says Barton, are new targets and approaches for therapeutic interventions. Many pathological states result from a malfunction of signaling within cellular pathways. For example, cystic fibrosis—the most common genetic disease among Caucasians—is typically caused by defects in the way a receptor is folded and moved through the cell, not by problems with the receptor itself. By understanding how networks of molecules produce and process the information needed for cells to function properly, researchers have a better chance of figuring out what happens when such functions fail—and, ultimately, of fixing those problems.
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The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, established in 2000, seeks to advance environmental conservation and scientific research around the world and improve the quality of life in the San Francisco Bay Area. The foundation’s science program aims to make a significant impact on the development of provocative, transformative scientific research and increase knowledge in emerging fields. For more information, visit www.moore.org.