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Carver Trust grant to advance molecular studies at Illinois

Jim Barlow, Life Sciences Editor


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Rapidly advancing tools let researchers amass oceans of biological data – so much so that fishing out the meaning is as daunting as climbing a mountain without gear. A new $3.15 million, three-year grant from the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust, however, will make the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign a national leader in its capability to analyze molecular information about cells, officials say.

The grant to the Biotechnology Center allows for the purchase of a powerful superconducting magnet, the hiring of a team of bioinformatics experts, and implementing and customizing advanced integrated software systems.

A 15-Tesla magnet – the heart of an ultra-high-performance Fourier-Transform Ion Cyclotron Resonance Mass Spectrometer expected to cost more than a million dollars – will be only the second one established in the nation.

It will provide researchers at Illinois with “an unprecedented ability to analyze subtle molecular changes in cell and human biology – mostly at the level of proteins and small molecules,” said Neil L. Kelleher, a professor in the bioengineering and chemistry departments and co-principal investigator on the grant.

Kelleher already uses an 8.5 Tesla instrument in his lab and has experience in software development for using the magnet to analyze small, intact proteins. The 15-Tesla model will let researchers precisely probe chemical modifications to larger and more complex proteins from diverse individuals in a population.

Mining the data for meaning and significance has become a challenge during the last decade as scientific tools have been created to complete the human genome and genomes for many plants and animals. Scientists currently are using the genomic information to probe DNA, proteins and metabolites for their functions and interrelationships.

“This grant from the Carver Trust will greatly enhance the capabilities of University of Illinois research and our visibility, and it will enable a new range of cutting-edge research,” said co-principal investigator Jonathan V. Sweedler, the Lycan Professor of Chemistry and director of the Biotechnology Center.

“Put simply, modern analytical instrumentation allows the accumulation of gigabytes of data from characterizing a biological sample, but sifting through the data and extracting the needed information is now the task of experts,” he said. “Researchers in most cases are left data rich but knowledge poor.”

The Biotechnology Center is now evaluating a range of software and computer systems needed to move forward with this initiative. The specialists will work with these new systems to meet the data-interpretation needs of the diverse research on campus.

The magnet, software system and new specialists will be administered by the Biotechnology Center and housed in the Institute for Genomic Biology, now under construction on Gregory Drive between Bevier Hall and the Morrow Plots in Urbana.

“The Carver Trust is truly an important contributor to this university’s success in many areas,” Sweedler said. “The combined resources will significantly increase the competitive fitness of literally hundreds of research groups at Illinois. These new resources also will ensure that the breakthroughs in cell biology and molecular-based medicine come from talented investigators in Champaign-Urbana.”

The Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust is located in Muscatine, Iowa. Its program in medical and scientific research provides support for innovative investigation that holds the promise for advancing scientific knowledge and improving human health. Roy J. Carver graduated from Illinois in 1934 with a bachelor’s degree in engineering. Since 1992, the Carver Trust has awarded some $12 million to support scientific initiatives at Illinois.