Cathy Royer, Professor in Biological Sciences and Constellation Chair, just received a 3 years/$385 K new NSF grant  to study pressure effects on RNA structure.


This award from the Chemistry of Life Processes Program in the Chemistry Division is funding Dr. Catherine Royer from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to characterize the molecular determinants of RNA structural dynamics. RNA is thought to be the original central molecule of early life forms. Understanding what controls the structure and dynamics, and thus function, of RNA molecules is key to piecing together how life began and evolved on earth. Pressure perturbation will be used to induce structural transitions in RNA, opening an entirely new avenue of biochemical research. Pressure as a variable is particularly appropriate because life is thought to have evolved in the oceans, and thus under pressure. The research will involve promotion of STEM fields to high school students via participation in the high school student mentoring program at the Center for Biotechnology at RPI, training of graduate and undergraduate students in state of the art biophysical chemistry, promotion of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM research, particularly in the context of the undergraduate Summer Research Program at RPI in Biochemistry and Biophysics that hosts undergraduates from primarily minority colleges  and international internship opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students through strong international network of collaborators in France, Germany and Japan.


Specialized summary


The global objective of the research is to structurally and energetically characterize tertiary conformational transitions of structured RNA molecules using high hydrostatic pressure. Pressure effects on biopolymer conformational equilibria are due to differences in molar volume between states, which for RNA, arise from differences in voids and hydration effects. Pressure perturbation of RNA allows quantitative assessment of the changes in hydration and ion condensation implicated in RNA structural dynamics. Two well-characterized model RNA systems are investigated, tRNALys3 and the Azoarcus group I ribozyme, using a combination of NMR, fluorescence, FTIR and SAXS. Research is aimed specifically at determining 1) the structural and dynamic effects of pressure on these model RNA molecules, 2) the quantitative contributions of hydration and ion interactions to the structural transitions and 3) and the role of conserved nucleotides in controlling RNA conformational transitions.