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Northwestern University Office for Research

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Office for Research

Creating New Knowledge
Creating New Knowledge

Going Deep into the Inner Workings of Cells

The cell is the basic unit of life. It contains a complete copy of an organism's DNA, it requires an energy flow to maintain its functions, and it can replicate to produce daughter cells. Yet the design rules describing how molecular parts are organized and how they interact with one another to control cellular functions are far from understood. Milan Mrksich, biomedical engineering, chemistry, and cell and molecular biology, is developing tools that can profile the full range of chemical reactions occurring in the cell and that reveal the design principles underlying the complex functions they control.

Characterizing a cell's biochemical activities is challenging because visualizing each reaction type requires a different method, and the various methods are often incompatible. For example, many enzymes transfer chemical groups to proteins, but the tests used to measure these activities differ according to the type of modification. The Mrksich groud has invented SAMDI, a "label-free" technology that can monitor all enzymatic reactions in a cell. The method uses a plate that has an array of thousands of different biological molecules. When the contents of a cell are applied to the array, enzymes in the sample can modify the various biological molecules. The array is then analyzed by mass spectrometry, a powerful technique that can reveal the small mass changes that are evidence of these reactions.

The arrays provide a profile of biochemical activities that underlie specific cell functions. For example, profiles of normal and cancerous cells can reveal new opportunities for treating disease. Similarly, the profiles can add new perspective to understanding how a cell regulates complex functions. The SAMDI technology has also been applied to discovering new enzymatic reactions and to identifying novel intracellular strategies for regulating behaviors.

This article originally appeared in the Office for Research 2012 Annual Report.

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