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Chemists and Biologists Partner on Research

Chemistry Resarch


Collaborations help WCU research students learn twice as many skills

As an assistant professor of biochemistry, Western Carolina University’s Jamie Wallen sees himself as part chemist, part biologist. Perhaps, that’s why it’s no coincidence many of his research projects are collaborations with those from both fields.

Wallen believes the ability to learn research skills in both biology and chemistry gives his students an added edge when it comes to pursuing doctorates or moving onto their careers.

“The beauty of collaboration is that when two or more people work together, they have different types of expertise,” Wallen said. “My goal is to work with both chemists and biologists in my research.”

One such project that Wallen is currently working on is with Indi Bose, associate professor of biology. The two are researching the DNA replication in the mitochondria of pathogenic fungus called Cryptococcus neoformans. The project is funded by a Provost Internal Funding Support Grant.

The goal is to learn about the DNA polymerase gamma enzyme that is responsible for copying the DNA in the mitochondria of that organism, with the idea that they might be able to develop some therapeutics toward that enzyme to help treat Cryptococcus infections in humans.

Cryptococcus neoformans is a fungus that lives in the environment throughout the world. Breathing in the microscopic fungus infects people, but most cases involve those with weakened immune systems, particularly those with advanced HIV/AIDS. It usually affects the lungs or the central nervous system, but can also affect other parts of the body. An estimated one million cases of Cryptococcal meningitis occur in people with HIV/AIDS worldwide each year, resulting in nearly 625,000 deaths.

“We have found that there are some portions of that protein that are unique as compared to human protein, or the human enzyme,” Wallen said. “We’re hoping we can exploit those differences to design some small molecule or drug that will inhibit the Cryptococcus enzyme. We’re gathering preliminary data right now on that enzyme to apply for an NSF (National Science Foundation) grant either this fall or early winter.”

Lindsay Farris, a WCU student from High Shoals, is currently involved in the research on that project.

“Since this is what I want to do after college, it’s been awesome to be able to jump right in and get to start doing research right away,” Farris said. “This project is cool because the idea that Cryptococcus is like the leading cause of Cryptococcal meningitis. Potentially discovering what these regions do and if they’re essential to the function of the fungus, it could potentially help people in the future with research for the disease.”

Another project Wallen is involved with is a collaboration with his wife, biology instructor Maria Gainey, and associate professor of analytic chemistry Scott Huffman. While teaching a Phage Hunters course together through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s SEA-Phages program, Wallen and Gainey found that the mycobacteria phages, the phages that their students were discovering, infect mycobacterium smegmatis. They became interested in using both computational approaches, bioinformatics as well as wet lab work, to understand how DNA replication occurs in this virus as it infects its host.

Wallen and Gainey are studying the enzymes, while possibly doing some genetics. Huffman is helping with the bioinformatics, or the computational side of things on the project.

“We’re finding that even though these viruses infect the same host, some of them have one kind of DNA polymerase, and some of them have a completely different DNA polymerase, and some of them are missing a DNA polymerase altogether, which is very fascinating to me because that is an essential enzyme,” Wallen said. “You have to have that activity in order for a virus to survive.”

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