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BGSU biologist trying to crack microscopic code

Dr. Ray Larsen is trying to learn a second language. The Bowling Green State University biologist wants to crack the communication code of proteins, especially the ones whose "talking" aids and abets disease.

"Proteins interact; they 'talk' to each other," the associate professor says. "It's how they know what to do, and it's how most of the things that need to happen for living organisms get done."

Over the past three years he has received $300,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation for his research.

What talking proteins have to do with infectious disease is a story that unfolds in the submicroscopic world of molecular biology. It starts with bacteria, which are cloaked by an outer membrane--a defensive barrier against the harsh elements of their environment, whether toxins in nature or the protective antibodies of an infected host. Specific proteins interact to support this shield, and knowing how they communicate would provide a key to disabling it, Larsen says.

Once communication questions are answered, a goal is to develop drugs to break the barrier, rendering the bacteria more susceptible to the human body's natural defenses--antibodies--as well as certain antibiotics, he points out.

While keeping potential dangers out, the outer membrane must also be porous enough to allow nutrients in, he continues. As an analogy, he cites a house with a yard and a chain-link fence that "keeps the dogs out of the roses but lets the butterflies through."

A short distance separates the outer membrane and the rest of the organism. How the bacteria maintain their barrier when it's physically removed from the rest of the cell, and thus separated from its energy source, is where his interest lies.

"The barrier is not self-sustaining, so the bacteria must export energy to it," says Larsen, referring to protein systems that take cellular energy and use it to support the outer membrane. "It's kind of like get
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Source:Bowling Green State University


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