New Worlds: Faster protein identification

Millions at one blow: New method hastens protein identification.

protein structure 88 (photo credit: )
protein structure 88
(photo credit: )
A method that could speed the identification of novel protein molecules for medical or biological research hundreds of times over has been developed by scientists at the Weizmann Institute and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "Searches that now take a year can be done in a matter of days," says Dr. Dan Tawfik, one of the developers. In today's high-throughput searches for specific genes, proteins or protein interactions, plates containing rows of tiny wells have replaced old-fashioned test tubes. However, trawling for a gene or protein with just the right qualifications may require sorting through millions, or even billions, of possibilities. Instead of wells, the new method - developed by Tawfik and Amir Aharoni of the Rehovot institute's biological chemistry department and Prof. Shlomo Magdassi of HU's institute of chemistry with support from the Science and Technology Ministry - relies on microscopic droplets of water suspended inside oil droplets. Using their system, millions of tests can be performed at once. The method, which relies on a type of emulsion dubbed WOW (water-oil-water), takes a page from living cells, which employ a fatty membrane to keep the inside and outside environments separate. The oily layer surrounding each minuscule water droplet acts as a barrier, keeping genes, proteins and other materials contained. Alternately, the team inserted harmless bacteria containing genes for testing into the drops. Confining individual tests within a cell-like bubble allowed them to employ a widely-used method for analyzing living cells. This method involves adding a fluorescent marker that lights up in color when activated by the right protein and sorting through the cells for those containing the marked proteins and their coding genes. Automated devices for sorting cells can handle many thousands of droplets per second. To demonstrate the efficiency of the system, the team isolated a new enzyme from a gene that was mutated artificially to produce random variations. They generated the enzymes in the droplets and sorted them according to which ones were better at cleaving a specific toxin in the bloodstream. The results from a screen completed in one afternoon were equivalent to those previously obtained through several rounds of mutation and screening - a several-month process. OZONE-PROTECTING GAS Hydrofluorocarbons are gases commonly used for refrigeration and cooling. They are also known for depleting the ozone layer, and thus promoting global warming. Now engineers at Purdue University in Indiana are developing technologies that use environmentally friendly carbon dioxide as an alternative for refrigerators and air conditioners. Prof. Eckhard Groll of the mechanical engineering department, has created - as part of research funded by the US Army - a prototype portable air conditioning unit using carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a "green" alternative to conventional refrigerants, which cause about 1,400 times more global warming. A recent university conference discussed applications ranging from soft drink vending machines to portable air conditioners used by the military for a variety of roles, such as cooling troops and electronic equipment as well as the use of the gas to run heat pumps that operate like air conditioners in reverse to warm swimming pools and homes. BGU HELPS DISABLED HELP OTHERS In an economy where 70% of physically disabled people are unemployed, a student in the master of business administration program at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev is helping to create positions for those who would not normally be able to find a job. Eynav Maharabani, a blind student at the school of management, is engaged in a project that has already brought work to 20 visually impaired and physically challenged people from all over the country. "Many university researchers use recorded interviews as the basic data for their studies," explains Maharabani. "These interviews have to be transcribed verbatim so they can be used for later analysis." This is where the Maof (Vision) project steps in. Acting as transcribers in their own homes, participants listen to the tapes and type the oral information and emphatic reactions (such as emotions) into the computer, allowing the researcher to carry out his analysis. "One benefit of blind transcribers is their ability to hear things in the tone of a voice that go unnoticed to a sighted listener. This is very important to researchers, who are often looking not just for what is said, but how it is said," Maharabani adds. Recognizing the program's commercial possibilities, within the framework of the school of management's Bengis Center for Entrepreneurship and Hi-Tech Management, Eynav is working on marketing and business plans. "There are scores of potential users at BGU and other universities. Because distance is no object, we could serve foreign universities too. We have a large number of immigrants in Israel, and would have no problem finding someone conversant in a desired language." Maharabani explains the program's heavy dependence on technology. "Ideally, we'd like to create an Intranet site to allow our employees and customers to work interactively, posting audio files to be picked up by the first available transcriber. "To do this we need more funding, and we hope the business plan we're preparing will show the economic viability of the program." The Maof project is a cooperative effort of the Bengis Center, the Israel Center for Qualitative Methodologies, the government's Fund for Vocational Rehabilitation and Beersheba's Small Business Development Agency.