04 March 2008

Radical movement explored

Colchester Campus

A major research project in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Essex has secured funding of more than £470,000 to investigate free radicals.

Many enzymes use highly reactive free radicals to perform their catalytic functions. Free radicals are compounds containing unpaired electrons and play an important role in a number of biological processes, many of which are necessary to sustain life.

However, because of their high reactivity free radicals can also participate in unwanted side reactions, causing cell damage that may lead to many diseases including arthritis and Alzheimer's disease. Antioxidants can remove these radicals and are therefore heavily marketed in nutritional supplements, for example in the recently launched antioxidant Diet Coke Plus.

Professors Mike Wilson and Chris Cooper with Drs Dima Svistunenko and Brandon Reeder are leading the research within the newly formed Centre for Radicals and Oxidative Stress (CROSS). Professor Wilson explained: 'The way in which enzymes control free radical movement is of important scientific interest and is the focus of our research. Almost 50 years after the existence of free radicals was first detected, we intend to examine the way they move through enzymes and proteins.'

Using proteins that contain the amino acid tyrosine, and leading edge research techniques, the team will be able to track the movement of the radicals to discover if their movement is mainly within proteins or is transmitted to other proteins.

The test bed for their research is a protein, myoglobin, expressed using the DNA of the sea-hare (Aplysia). This protein does not naturally contain tyrosine so forms an ideal 'blank canvas' to study the relationship between structure and function. Tyrosine will be introduced into the protein and the research team will then be able to manipulate the location of the radicals and observe their movement.

Professor Wilson continued: 'Ultimately we aim to identify the rules that govern free radical movement. This information will be valuable in understanding the mechanisms by which proteins control radicals and will also be of importance in understanding why these processes go wrong in some proteins and lead to disease states.'

'If we can identify how the free radicals move, it may be possible to identify how to stop or remove them completely in those areas of the body where we know they have a damaging effect. The results of this research have many applications, for example in drug development.'

The three-year study has been funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

For more information, or to interview the research team, contact the University of Essex Communications Office, telephone: 01206 872807, e-mail: comms@essex.ac.uk.

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