3/11/2016 Peter Durantine

Chemistry Project Looks for Water in the Protein Pocket

For months, senior biochemistry major Daniyal Tariq, alongside Assistant Professor of Chemistry Christine Phillips-Piro, manipulated the heme pocket of a gas-binding protein with an unnatural amino acid to address the question: "Can water get into the pocket or just gases?" Piro said.

In the Hackman Physical Sciences Laboratories building, Tariq in collaboration with Lukasz Olenginski ‘15 set out in Piro's lab to find an answer. He already knew the heme in the protein binds to oxygen (O2) and nitrogen oxide (NO) gases.

What Tariq discovered, however, was the pocket was only accessible to oxygen, nitrogen oxide and other small gases and not water molecules.

"It's always great when you can ask more questions after a research project," said Tariq, who, following graduation will study biochemistry at Cornell University. 

  • Senior biochemistry major Daniyal Tariq manipulated the heme pocket of a gas-binding protein with an unnatural amino acid to address the question: can water get into the pocket or just gases? Image Credit: Deb Grove

Another project in the Piro lab that Tariq has been working on uses the same heme protein and various unnatural amino acids to alter how tightly the protein interacts with oxygen.

"I thought this was the most intriguing aspect of the project; the approach was pretty cool," Tariq said. "We wanted to see how tightly the protein binds with oxygen, which was one of the goals I thought was interesting."

Tariq, who started as a volunteer in Piro's lab last year, has since done research under Hackman and Leser grants. Earlier this year, he and Piro traveled to Los Angeles for the Biophysical Society's annual meeting to present his findings.

Tariq displayed a poster titled, "Probing local solvation environments of an oxygen-binding heme protein using a spectroscopically active unnatural amino acid."

Two yeas ago, as he prepared to start his junior year, Tariq said he searched in the Chemistry Department for a lab where he could study biochemistry.  After some inquiries, he decided to work with Piro.

"I liked the general approach Professor Piro uses," Tariq said. "I felt it was a natural fit for me."

After Tariq leaves for Cornell, the Piro lab will continue the work Tariq and Olenginski have started on this heme protein. Tariq said there are possible applications for the heme, from a carbon-monoxide sensor to a drug for people suffering from hypoxia, a condition that occurs when the body or a region of the body is not receiving sufficient oxygen.

"There is so much we could do," Tariq said. "And the fact that we are using unnatural amino acids means there's a lot more options." 

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