August 27, 2004

Sophisticated equipment will enhance research

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A new $175,000 federal grant received by researchers at Southern Illinois University Carbondale will purchase analytical equipment so sophisticated that results could help construct a "map" of a single cell.

"Curing cancer, making people live to be 150, designing perfect diets -- it's all there in the chemistry between a cell and its environment," said biotechnologist David A. Lightfoot, one of seven SIUC scientists who put together the National Science Foundation grant application to buy the equipment.

"We'll be able to see enough to understand the genes, proteins and chemicals and be able to predict how a cell will behave under different circumstances. But to make that map, you need to know what's there, and you need to know what's changing."

The new equipment, a matrix-assisted laser desorption ionization time-of-flight mass spectrometer (commonly known by its more user-friendly acronym MALDI-TOF), will help University researchers in specialties ranging from chemistry to plant science to electrical engineering hammer out the secrets in those cells.

SIUC scientists will draw on its analytic power to, among other things, help select disease-resistant crop varieties, identify proteins involved in drought tolerance, examine proteins involved in aging and Alzheimer's disease, analyze genetic diversity in primitive species ranging from mosses to sharks, and study how drug-resistant bacteria get that way.

While the grant to buy the spectrometer went to seven researchers, it is not their equipment, Lightfoot stressed.

"This is a multi-user program -- it's not to be put in one professor's lab and protected against all comers," he said.

"Anybody's entitled to either pay to have someone run their samples or be trained to do that themselves."

A mass spectrometer electrically charges a sample of whatever is to be analyzed, then measures the weight, or mass, of the charged particles. Those weights, the relative quantity of the charged bits and the speed at which they move all help pinpoint the structure and composition of the sample.

In addition to regular chemical samples, this particular piece of equipment can handle what Lightfoot called "dirty, horrible" samples -- a ground-up soybean plant, for instance -- making the spectrometer extremely versatile. It's also super-accurate, capable of measuring to one-hundredth of an atomic weight. Moreover, it's fast (a sample runs in about one second) and cheap to run (costing just pennies per sample).

SIUC researchers had been using MALDI-TOFs in Champaign and St. Louis, Mo., an arrangement that proved unsatisfactory. For one thing, distance added to the time involved in data collection.

"It took me nearly two years to get something published that should have been done in months," Lightfoot said.

"In science, that's fatal -- it kills research projects. You can't waste 18 months waiting for your data."

Lack of an on-campus machine also prevented SIUC students from gaining experience on the equipment, experience that will help them prepare for jobs in the fast-growing biotechnology field. After training on this spectrometer, students will know how to prepare samples, submit them and analyze the results.

"They'll be able to say, 'Has this ever been found before?' and if it hasn't, they will know how to go in and find out what the heck it is," Lightfoot said. Creating an environment of discovery and learning is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.

SIUC is now taking bids for the spectrometer, and Lightfoot expects that it should be in place in the Mass Spectrometry Center on the third floor of the Neckers Building by the end of the year.

In addition to Lightfoot, Edward J. Heist from Fisheries and Illinois Aquaculture Center, John A. Koropchak from chemistry and biochemistry, and vice chancellor for research and graduate dean, Khalid Meksem from plant, soil and agricultural systems, Luke Tolley from chemistry and biochemistry, JianjunWang from biochemistry and molecular biology and Andrew J.Wood from plant biology put together the grant application.

Other scientists named in the application include: William J. Banz, animal science, food and nutrition; Blaine Bartholomew, biochemistry and molecular biology; Stephen D. Ebbs, plant biology; Jorge F.S. Ferreira, plant biology; Yong Gao, chemistry and biochemistry; Lalit Gupta, electrical and computer engineering; Spyros Tragoudas, electrical and computer engineering; and Bryan G.Young, plant, soil and agricultural systems.