UD researchers awarded $2.2 million to acquire NMR spectrometer
Research team members, from left, Cecil Dybowski, Tatyana Polenova, Sharon Rozovsky and Steve Bai.

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8:24 a.m., Feb. 26, 2010----A research team in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Delaware has received a National Science Foundation grant of nearly $2.2 million to acquire a highly specialized 750-megahertz nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer that will serve as a valuable resource for scientists throughout the region.

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The instrument -- a major step forward in the research infrastructure of both UD and the state of Delaware -- will be used to support exciting research activities in areas “ranging from chemistry to biological sciences, to marine biosciences, to materials science and engineering,” according to Tatyana Polenova, associate professor and principal investigator for the project.

Co-principal investigators are Cecil Dybowski, professor, and Sharon Rozovsky, assistant professor, and a key part of the team will be Steve Bai, director of UD's NMR facility who oversees the operation and maintenance of the multiple NMR spectrometers on campus. The grant is funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

“This instrument will permit structural analysis of large proteins and macromolecular assemblies playing multiple biological roles,” Polenova said, adding that it “will permit investigations of advanced materials for applications in alternative energy technologies, catalysis, and environmental remediation.”

She said that “knowledge of geometric and electronic structures of these macromolecular systems provide insight into their function and will, in turn, guide the design of novel materials” and that this high-field NMR spectrometer “will enable development of new experiments for interrogating the structural and dynamic properties of a wide variety of biological systems and materials.”

The NMR spectrometer will become a regional resource with access open to investigators at multiple institutions in the state and in the neighboring states of the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast, Polenova said. In addition to five UD departments -- Chemistry and Biochemistry, Chemical Engineering, Materials Science and Engineering, Biological Sciences and Marine Biosciences -- the equipment will be used by researchers from three collaborating institutions -- Wesley College in Dover, Del., Hunter College of the City University of New York and Rutgers University.

“This kind of resource creates the synergies that promote new collaborations between researchers in multiple institutions, which results in exciting scientific discoveries in the areas vital to the nation's scientific and technological development, such as alternative energy, novel biomaterials, and life sciences,” Polenova, Dybowski and Rozovsky said.

Until this NSF award, Polenova said researchers in the state did not have access to high-field NMR instrumentation and she said she expects its acquisition “will significantly enhance cutting-edge research at the University of Delaware for years to come.”

She added, “The research conducted by the users of the high-field NMR spectrometer is interdisciplinary, and therefore access to the cutting-edge NMR spectrometer will provide advanced training in contemporary science and technology to a diverse body of graduate, undergraduate and postdoctoral students at UD and the collaborators' institutions.”

The new NMR spectrometer will arrive in 12-18 months and will be housed in recently renovated Brown Hall, which in its 4,650-square-foot Magnet Hall currently houses seven NMR instruments operating at various fields. “Once the high-field NMR instrument is acquired and installed, the Magnet Hall will offer researchers some of the most advanced NMR technology housed under the same roof,” Polenova said.

NMR spectroscopy is a powerful and versatile technique for analysis of a wide variety of materials, whether they are synthetic molecules, naturally occurring materials, complex advanced materials, or biological systems, the researchers said, and it is applicable to the investigation of all states of matter: gases, liquids, solids, plasmas, or liquid crystalline phases. The results of an investigation with NMR spectroscopy give scientists detailed information on aspects of a material, such as structure, composition and dynamics.

Polenova said she first became interested in NMR spectroscopy as an undergraduate student in chemistry at Moscow State University, where she was impressed by “how much information one can infer from NMR experiments about chemical and physical properties of molecules.”

As a graduate student at Columbia University, she said she was “fascinated to learn how elegant the theory of NMR spectroscopy is and how it has it foundations in several fields: quantum mechanics, classical physics, and chemistry. NMR is one of the areas of science that bridges multiple disciplines and that, since its discovery, has witnessed continuous development in all its aspects -- this makes the field so much fun to be part of.”

At UD, Polenova's laboratory works on the development of NMR methods that enable studies of structure and function of large protein assemblies such as microtubule-associated proteins (implicated in motor neuron and degenerative disorders), HIV-1 protein assemblies (associated with HIV-1 infectivity); of metal sites in biotechnologically important vanadium-containing enzymes and inorganic materials; and of intervertebral disc tissue degeneration.

Rozovsky received a bachelor's degree from Tel Aviv University and a doctorate from Columbia University. Her interest in the field of biological NMR spectroscopy was spurred when she discovered its ability to precisely determine the details of proteins' motion.

“Proteins are highly dynamic and their structure constantly fluctuates around an average conformation. These motions are essential for their biological function. They allow the proteins to recognize and bind each other, to expedite the rate of chemical reactions, or simply switch their biological activity on or off,” she said. “NMR spectroscopy is the only technique that can record these motions on all time scales that are relevant to understand proteins' function.”

She said, “I am thrilled about the new scientific venues offered by the high-field NMR system to my group and to all of us on UD campus and neighboring institutes who use NMR.”

Dybowski earned his doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin and has spent his entire career on the faculty at UD, where he has become nationally and internationally recognized for his laboratory's work in spectroscopy. He is the winner of the 2010 Eastern Analytical Symposium Award for Outstanding Achievements in Magnetic Resonance and the recipient of the 2010 Gold from the Society for Applied Spectroscopy, as well as being a fellow of the Society for Applied Spectroscopy and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“The presence of a high-field spectrometer offers us the chance to probe states of matter in details that would not be possible with less-intense magnets. There will be new connections to be understood and unusual relationships of spectroscopic and physical parameters to be explained,” Dybowski said.

Bai was introduced to NMR spectroscopy at the University of Utah, where he “experienced the wide range of NMR spectroscopic applications to systems such as gases, liquids and solids.”

He added, “As an NMR spectroscopist at the University of Delaware, I have witnessed the explosive expansion of NMR laboratories over the past 10 years. I am very excited about this new ultra-high filed NMR system and am determined to make sure a comfortable 'home' is ready when the new system arrives.

Article by Neil Thomas
Photo by Doug Baker

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