Rich on research

Two professors from the PSU chemistry department recently received large grant awards from the National Institutes of Health.

Kevin Reynolds, professor and chair of the chemistry department at Portland State, is the co-awardee of a four-year, $1.6 million grant from the NIH. Reynolds will split the collaborative award with researchers at the University of Michigan.

Dirk Iwata-Reuyl, associate professor in chemistry, is co-awardee of a five-year, $1.65 million NIH collaborative grant between three institutions: Portland State, the University of Florida and Scripps, with $915,000 going to Iwata-Reuyl.

The awards add to a thriving chemistry department that has seen research funding increase four-fold in the last 3 years. During the current year – July 2005 through June 2006-the PSU chemistry department has worked with research funds in excess of $2 million.

Reynold’s project, entitled “Molecular analysis of modular polyketide synthases,” uses a set of genetic tools to incorporate a process that mimics evolution.

One of Reynold’s major research areas at PSU centers on microorganisms that produce secondary metabolites, or natural products. These compounds have varied applications in medicine and agriculture, including use as antibiotics, immunosuppressants, anticancer agents and antiparasitic agents.

The carbon skeleton core of many of these compounds is produced by enzymes (a kind of protein) known as polyketide synthases (PKS). PKS can be exchanged between different microorganisms, creating hybridized products and leading to new pharmacological applications.

“Most drugs that we use ultimately run out in terms of their effectiveness,” Reynolds said. “For example, antibiotics and even anticancer drugs are stopped by drug resistance.”

“You need to generate new drugs,” Reynolds said. “In a very simplistic way, if you take two microorganisms that make sort of similar compounds, you can do the genetic work and mix them to make a third hybrid compound that might be useful as a new antibiotic, or a new treatment for cancer.”

Iwata-Reuyl’s grant, “Biosynthesis of hypermodified guanosines,” focuses on the biosynthesis of modified compounds in ribonucleic acid (RNA). RNA is a messenger substance found within all living cells.

“An early part of this pathway is shared with the folic acid biosynthesis pathway,” said Iwata-Reuyl. “We’ve discovered an enzyme in a subset of pathogenic bacteria that, if inhibited, will kill the bacteria.”

While Reynold’s group works with bacteria as a way to potentially create new drugs, Iwata-Reuyl’s research looks at pathways inside bacteria that are targets of developing drugs.

“Another way to say it is that we work on good bacteria to make the drugs, and then we work on the pathways in the bad bacteria to learn how to kill them,” Reynolds explained.

Both projects will provide a wealth of support for PSU chemistry undergraduate and graduate students.

The chemistry department currently has 40 graduate students – 6 masters students and 34 in PhD programs. Thirty-five are supported by teaching assistantships or research assistantships, the latter funded directly by faculty research.

Three undergraduates, four PhD students and several post-doctoral students work in Reynold’s laboratory and will assist with his grant project. Iwata-Reuyl’s team includes three undergraduates and four graduate students.

Reynolds joined the Portland State faculty as chemistry professor and department chair in July 2005. An internationally recognized expert in the field of bacterial natural products and fatty acid biosynthesis, he received his PhD in 1987 from the University of Southampton. After completing a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Washington, Reynolds held a professorship at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Iwata-Reuyl received his PhD in 1992 from The Johns Hopkins University and served a postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of Utah from 1992 to 1994. His interests include the chemistry and enzymology of RNA modification and the role of modified nucleosides in RNA function

In a PSU press release, Reynolds said, “We’re very excited to receive support for this grant and to be able to carry out this project as part of the expanding scientific research program here at Portland State University.

The chemistry department at Portland State encompasses a wide range of research programs that support the university’s emphasis on sustainability, including biological chemistry, nanotechnology, alternative energy and environmental quality.

Reynold’s work will be carried out in newly renovated chemistry lab space in Science Building 2. Iwata-Reuyl’s labs are in SB1.