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Research team has article published in prestigious journal Biochemistry

RELEASED: Nov. 17, 2010

EAU CLAIRE — Work completed by a research team that included University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire undergraduate students and several UW-Eau Claire chemistry faculty members was recently published in the prestigious journal Biochemistry.

The research team, which also includes students and faculty from other institutions, has been studying the structure and function of molecules that are produced by methane-eating bacteria, said Dr. Warren Gallagher, professor of chemistry.

Methane-eating bacteria are found just about any place that methane is produced and play a major role in removing methane from the atmosphere, Gallagher said.

"This is important because methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas," Gallagher said. "For example, these methane-eating bacteria were in the news recently because of their ability to help degrade the large quantities of the methane that was released by BP's Macondo Well this past summer."

The particular molecules that the UW-Eau Claire research team studied are a class of molecules called methanobactins, which are used by the bacteria to scavenge copper ions from their surroundings, Gallagher said. The copper ions are needed by the enzyme that the bacteria use to convert methane to methanol, he said.

"Our research has shown that methanobactins are made from small peptides that are modified to contain some highly unusual chemical groups that allow them to bind copper ions very strongly," Gallagher said. "In collaboration with the other authors on the paper, we have discovered the gene for a precursor peptide for one of the methanobactin molecules. We now know the structure of the peptide that the bacteria uses to make this methanobactin. This gives us a handle on how the methane-eating bacteria synthesize these very unusual molecules."

The Biochemistry journal article is titled "A Comparison of Methanobactins from Methylosinus trichosporium OB3b and Methylocystis strain SB2 Predicts Methanobactins are Synthesized from Diverse Peptide Precursors Modified to Create a Common Core for Binding and Reducing Copper Ions."

The article lists Benjamin Krentz, a UW-Eau Claire senior biochemistry/molecular biology major from Weston, as the first author.

"While there is no set protocol to determine whose name is listed first among the authors of a scientific article, it's usually the person who actually carried out the experiments," Gallagher said. "This paper contained a total of 11 authors, all who made significant contributions to this study. Scientific inquiry is a collaborative activity that usually requires valued contributions from a number of individuals, who bring a variety of skills and knowledge to a project."

Krentz, who has been involved with the research since the summer of 2009, said the project has exposed him to a range of lab techniques and tools. It also allowed him to work closely with several faculty members who were involved in the project, he said.

"I think it's a very valuable experience to work with professors on independent projects," Krentz said. "It's a good educational experience that helps students learn about experimental design, responsibility and semi-autonomy in the lab."

Krentz said he and the other student researchers hope to present their findings at an American Chemical Society convention in spring 2011.

Heidi Mulheron, a UW-Manitowoc student author on the paper, did research at UW-Eau Claire in the summer of 2009 as part of a National Science Foundation funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates program.

Other UW-Eau Claire biochemistry/molecular biology majors involved were Emily Hoida, a sophomore from Green Bay; Nicholas Warren, a sophomore from Vadnais Heights, Minn.; and James Harder, a senior from Green Bay.

UW-Eau Claire faculty researchers on the project are Gallagher; Dr. Scott Hartsel, professor of chemistry; and Dr. Marcus McEllistrem, associate professor of chemistry.

The UW-Eau Claire researchers collaborated on the project with faculty and students from Iowa State University, University of Michigan, Université de Strasbourg in France, University of Warwick in the U.K. and the J. Craig Venter Institute.

"The effort nicely illustrated for our students how scientific research is a global, collaborative activity," Gallagher said.

For details, contact Dr. Warren Gallagher at 715-836-5388 or wgallagh@uwec.edu.

-30-

JB/DW

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