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“Heme carries oxygen in your blood,” said Molly Sutherland,
assistant professor of biological sciences at the University of
Delaware, who has been awarded a $2 million federal grant to support her
research into cytochrome c biogenesis, a process that requires heme.
“It’s able to move electrons, so it really plays an essential and
fundamental role in biology.”
Although heme, the
iron-containing protein that makes our blood red, may not have been in
everyone’s vocabulary, it gained popular notice a few years ago as the
key ingredient that gave the vegetarian “Impossible Burger” the look and
taste of meat.
But the importance of heme goes far beyond burgers. The molecule,
found in almost all forms of life from the smallest bacteria to the
largest plants and animals, is essential for chemical reactions in
“Heme carries oxygen in your blood,” said Molly Sutherland, assistant professor of biological sciences
at the University of Delaware, who has been awarded a $2 million
federal grant to support her research into cytochrome c biogenesis, a
process that requires heme. “It’s able to move electrons, so it really
plays an essential and fundamental role in biology.”
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Sutherland studies the biogenesis of cytochromes c, a heme-containing protein found in cells. Cytochromes c are critical to such essential cellular processes as respiration, photosynthesis, detoxification and cell death, in which the body gets rid of damaged cells. While there are many cytochromes c, all are made by one of three pathways, two found in bacteria and one in mitochondria (the powerhouse of animal and human cells), and all require heme as a co-factor to function.
She focuses on the bacterial pathways, using E. coli to conduct biochemical and genetic research on these pathways.
Assistant Professor Molly Sutherland, who joined the UD faculty in
January 2020, earned her doctorate at Washington University in St.
“I’m trying to understand these bacterial pathways and also create
model systems to study how heme is transported in cells,” Sutherland
said. “A lot of effort has been put into understanding the many
different cytochromes c and their important roles. I want to take a step
back and look at how cytochromes c are made.”
Discoveries she made as a postdoctoral researcher at Washington
University in St. Louis, before she joined UD, were detailed in a paper
published in May in the journal eLife.
The researchers found that humans and bacteria use different mechanisms
to attach heme to cytochrome c. That difference could potentially lead
scientists to find ways to deactivate the enzyme in bacteria while not
affecting human patients with bacterial infections.
“We’re trying to understand this fundamental process of how heme is
transported and attached to cytochromes c; it’s basic biological
knowledge that’s important to have,” Sutherland said. “But there are
also medical implications … [such as] a future target for developing
She was awarded a $2 million, five-year research grant, beginning
July 1, from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of
General Medical Services. The funding comes from the Maximizing
Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) program, which specifically
supports early-career research “among the nation’s highly talented and
promising investigators,” MIRA said.
Sutherland, who joined the UD faculty in January 2020, earned her
doctorate at Washington University in St. Louis, where she studied
microbial pathogenesis and, she said, realized that she could do more of
the research that interested her if she learned more biochemistry. With
that in mind, she chose a lab for her postdoctoral work that focused on
biochemical analysis of the proteins that make cytochromes.
At UD, she and her research team, which includes graduate and
undergraduate students, used the time when access to the lab was limited
due to the COVID-19 pandemic to prepare, she said. Students were able
to do additional reading and to develop their computer skills, she said,
important preparation for when they went into the lab itself, taking
appropriate health and safety precautions, beginning last summer.