When Columbia University biophysicist Joachim Frank was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry this fall, Auburn University researchers Jacek and Iwona Wower did a high-five—figuratively, if not literally.
That’s because transformative molecular research that they and Frank published in 2010 and 2011 factored into the body of work that won Frank and fellow international scientists Jacques Dubochet of Switzerland’s University of Lausanne and Cambridge University researcher Richard Henderson this year’s prestigious prize.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences selected the three for their collaborative work in developing cryo-electron microscopy, a technology that allows scientists to freeze large groups of macromolecules and determine their structure in detail. Cryo-electron microscopy is allowing researchers to discover how biology works on microscopic levels, and that is essential for the development of new, life-saving medications.
As biochemists, molecular biologists and geneticists in Auburn’s Department of Animal Sciences, the husband-wife research team of professor Jacek Wower and research fellow Iwona has been investigating the structure and role of transfer-messenger RNA, or tmRNA, in bacteria for a quarter of a century. The tmRNA molecule is a key component of multiple quality-control pathways in bacteria that ensure defective proteins are degraded.
“In 2008, Joachim Frank invited our lab to collaborate on a project that allowed us, through the use of the new cryo-electron microscopy tool, to see in detail the structure of tmRNA and build an atomic model,” Jacek Wower said.
Frank, the Wowers and their students then succeeded in visualizing tmRNA as it moves through the ribosome, which is a cell’s protein factory. The resulting high-fidelity images provided a better understanding of the Wowers’ findings in past research that suggested the tmRNA molecule is important for the viability of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the causative agent of tuberculosis.
“It’s rewarding to know that Auburn University made a contribution, however small, to Nobel Prize–winning research,” Jacek Wower said.
Frank has said the practical uses for cryo-electron microscopy are limitless. The technology already has helped scientists decipher biological processes that were previously invisible and has provided crucial insight into a number of dangerous viruses, including the Zika virus.
In the future, cryo-electron microscopy could offer road maps for the development of novel drugs to treat cancer and many genetic diseases, Wower said.