COLLEGE OF ARTS AND SCIENCES Department of Mathematics and Statistics

photo of Nikos Voulgarakis>

Math professor receives NSF grant to develop a mathematical model to explain how proteins identify and bind to specific targets on DNA

A mathematical model to explain how proteins are able to read the genetic code stored in DNA molecules is the basis of a $275,000 National Science Foundation grant awarded to Associate Professor Nikolaos Voulgarakis.

Life depends on the ability of an organism's proteins to promptly and accurately read the genetic code stored in DNA molecules. During this fundamental process, specific proteins randomly search for the proper DNA segment and then aggregate around it to form a molecular machinery that processes the genetic information. The accuracy and efficiency of DNA search is quite remarkable given the fact that the size of these proteins is about thousands times smaller than the typical length of a gene. Currently, there is no rigorous theory explaining how proteins identify and bind to specific targets on DNA. Such a theory will not only lead to a quantitative understanding of fundamental functions of DNA, it will also help scientists investigate the cause of diseases, such as cancer and diabetes, and ultimately advance drug discovery. This project will introduce a novel hypothesis according to which the search process is partially facilitated and directed by the DNA molecule itself. New mathematical models will be developed to study specific mechanical changes of the double strand that have the potential to assist proteins find their way towards the desired DNA segments. Results will be validated by direct comparison with experimental data. This project will train both graduate and undergraduate students in the broad field of mathematical biology, with special effort to recruit students from underrepresented groups and minorities.