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LSI integrates research


Decades of meticulous research by biochemist Rowena Matthews and her lab staff have produced a nearly complete picture of an enzyme that helps prevent heart disease and neural tube defects in babies.
E.O. Wilson (center) prepares to lecture about "Unified Biology and the Future of Life" May 14. The renowned scientist is university research professor emeritus at Harvard University. He is talking with Dr. David Bloom (left)—professor of urology, associate dean for faculty affairs at the Medical School, and division of chief of Pediatric Urology—and Dr. Allen Lichter, dean of the Medical School. (Photo by Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services)

They understand the enzyme's energy requirements, the other proteins with which it interacts, and the subtle fact that it becomes inactivated about once out of every thousand chemical reactions and needs to be recharged. They even made a cartoon movie of the enzyme's activity and set it to Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock."

"But we couldn't get to the question of whether an animal can live without the enzyme," says C. Lee Elmore, a post-doctoral fellow in Matthews' lab at the Life Sciences Institute (LSI). "The old methods (of biochemistry) were really good, but they don't get to that question."

Having just moved in to the multidisciplinary LSI, however, the Matthews group within days was working on a mouse that lacked the ability to keep the enzyme active so they could answer that very question.

"I've never done mouse studies before, and if we were still in a chemistry department, I never would," says Matthews, an LSI research professor and member of the National Academy of Sciences. "But here, it was simply a matter of Lee going up to the fifth floor of LSI and consulting with David Ginsburg's lab."

LSI was set up to accelerate discovery by bringing together faculty from a variety of scientific disciplines to collaborate in a shared space.

"Biology has entered a very promising new age of discovery," says LSI Director Alan Saltiel, the John Jacob Abel Professor in Life Sciences.
"We share equipment, we share space, but most importantly, we share ideas."—Kun-Liang Guan, Life Sciences Institute research professor

The new biology uses precise and tireless robots to prepare samples, machine vision to read data and powerful computers to analyze vast, noisy arrays of experimental results. Many different kinds of skills are brought to bear on an important problem, new tools are improvised along the way and conversations are key. It's nearly the opposite of the isolated, reductionist, one-molecule-at-a-time biology that has prevailed so far.

"We share equipment, we share space, but most importantly, we share ideas," says Kun-Liang Guan, an LSI research professor and
MacArthur Foundation scholar. "There's no substitute for bumping into each other and talking."

Guan and his sixth-floor neighbor, LSI research professor Daniel Klionsky, have started talking about the question of how cells know when to stop growing, and when to die and get out of the way. (Cancer cells are notorious for ignoring both cues.)

Guan and Klionsky each has been addressing these questions in his own way for many years, but now they're going to try to attack them together.

"I've had more interaction with colleagues here in three months than I had in three years in a traditional lab setting," says Klionsky, the Abram Sager Collegiate Professor of Life Sciences.

Each floor of the six-story, 230,000-square-foot building is about the size of a football field, but it contains just four labs, called "quads." Within each quad, students and technicians from two or three different faculty projects are together in a common space with 32 desks and lab benches.

"We're going to learn from each other by mixing things up a little," Saltiel says.

"The culture here is to interact, bounce ideas around and form new collaborations wherever it seems to make sense."

Related stories:
B. Joseph White to join LSI>
LSI unveils two centers>
The luck behind a great discovery>

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