Researchers building terahertz spectrum device to study biological molecules
Photo by Dan Addison
An interdisciplinary group of U.Va. researchers has won a $750,000 grant from the W. M. Keck Foundation to establish the Center for Terahertz Spectroscopy for Biological Materials at U.Va.
“The idea is to build a device that can start to explore properties of biological molecules we haven’t been able to reach in any other portion of the spectrum,” said Don Brown, chairman of the Department of Systems and Information Engineering, and the principal investigator for the research group. Researchers hope to have a prototype device in hand within 18 months. The three-year Keck grant started in September.
Applications of high-resolution terahertz spectroscopy are expected to include the development of devices that can measure interactions between drugs and enzymes, and interactions between the molecules that transfer genetic information.
|Don Brown (top) is the principal investigator for the research group building the terahertz spectrum device. They hope to have a prototype within 18 months. A graph of a terahertz wavelength is above.
“We’ve pushed infrared about as far as it will go and there are some open questions about how the three-dimensional structures in proteins form and about how they transform. We can’t get what we need out of the infrared portion of the spectrum,” Brown said.
The new center will set the stage for the development of a kind of high-powered prism — a device that will allow the study of biological molecules using the terahertz spectrum. The terahertz spectrum is a large range of electromagnetic wave frequencies between 100 gigahertz and 10 terahertz (above the millimeter waveband and just below infrared light).
Because terahertz frequencies lie in the same range as weak hydrogen bonds they enable scientists to examine the hydrogen bonds that are responsible for binding DNA strands together, the folding of proteins and the binding of enzymes and drugs to other materials.
The interdisciplinary research team includes faculty and graduate students in U.Va.’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, the College of Arts & Sciences and the School of Medicine.
In addition to Brown, participating researchers include several collaborators from the Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering: Robert Weikle, associate professor; Thomas Crowe, research professor; Tatiana Globus, research associate professor; and Boris Gelmont, research associate professor. Also, Michael DeVore, assistant professor of systems and information engineering; Lukas Tamm, professor of molecular physiology and biological physics in the School of Medicine; and a team of graduate students.
The W. M. Keck Foundation was established in Los Angeles in 1954 by William Myron Keck, founder of The Superior Oil Co. Now one of the country’s largest philanthropic organizations, the foundation holds assets of more than $1 billion.
In recent years, the Keck Foundation has targeted five main areas to support: science and engineering research; undergraduate instruction and research in science and engineering, medical research, liberal arts and southern California. The foundation is working to lay the groundwork for “breakthrough discoveries and new technologies that will save lives, provide innovative solutions and add immeasurably to our understanding of life on Earth and our place in the universe.”