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February 2002

News about Science, Technology and Engineering at Iowa State University

Research shows how protein control helps body fight infection
Iowa State University researchers have found a way that cells control a protein that helps the body fight infection. The discovery, which could lead to advances in the treatment of immune-system-related diseases, brings scientists a step closer to being able to treat disease, said Amy Andreotti, assistant professor of biochemistry at Iowa State.

Andreotti's research group recently discovered an "on/off switch" that controls the activity of a protein that can help the body fight infection. The switch, called proline cis/trans isomerization, was found to control activity in the interleukin-2 tyrosine kinase protein. The researchers -- Andreotti, graduate assistant Kristine Brazin, postdoctoral researcher Robert Mallis, and assistant scientist Bruce Fulton -- published their findings in the Feb. 5 issue of The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"All proteins in a cell must be tightly controlled to maintain normal cellular behavior," Andreotti said. "Our research is focused on the molecular mechanism by which one protein, interleukin-2 tyrosine kinase, is controlled in T-cells." T cells are white blood cells that make up the part of the immune system responsible for responding to infection and keeping the body healthy. When protein activities are not controlled, the result is abnormal cell growth or even cancer.

Andreotti's group used nuclear magnetic resonance to clarify the detailed structural features of these proteins and learn about their specific functions. A critical aspect of the work is the discovery that cyclophilin-A, an abundant protein that has not yet been assigned a function, can control the on-off switch in interleukin-2 tyrosine kinase. Andreotti said the goal of the researchers is to understand how protein activities are controlled at the molecular level. She said that the switch mechanism may be present in other proteins and that cyclophilin-A may be a general switch operator.

For more information, contact Andreotti at (515) 294-4953, or Bridget Bailey, ISU News Service, (515) 294-6881. A photo of Andreotti and Kristine Brazin can be downloaded at http://www.public.iastate.edu/~nscentral/photos/andreotti.html.

Smart material readied for 'Soundbug' application
TERFENOL-D, the "smart material" invented at Iowa State University and licensed to Etrema Products Inc., Ames, will soon be popping up in its first consumer application. "Soundbug" devices, which can turn almost any hard, flat surface into a loudspeaker, will be the first consumer product to use the rare-earth material.

Soundbug is a computer-mouse-sized device that attaches to a surface via a suction cup. It uses about two-thirds of a gram of TERFENOL-D material as an actuator, a small device that takes electrical signals and changes them into mechanical motion. The material does this through magnetostriction, where a magnetic field causes the material to change shape. Conventional loudspeakers use a vibrating diaphragm to push air backwards and forwards, converting electrical impulses into sound. The Soundbug, designed by Newlands Scientific PLC, Hull, U.K., employs the rapidly changing shape of TERFENOL-D, when applied to a hard surface (windows, desktops) to amplify sound.

The result is a product that acts as a speaker for personal audio systems like CD and MP3 players. Additional markets could be cell phones, and one product, the "Whispering Window," could use a car's window as a speaker for hands-free cell phone use.

Until now the primary user of TERFENOL-D has been the U.S. Navy, which uses it in SONAR systems, said Jon Snodgrass, chief scientist at Etrema Products. "This is our first consumer product based on TERFENOL-D. It isn't the biggest user today, but has the potential to become significant in the next six months." For more information, contact Snodgrass at (515) 296-8030, or Skip Derra, ISU News Service, (515) 294-4917.

'Coaching' students in chemistry
An Iowa State University professor's method of "guiding" college students through chemistry lab work is having an impact in the classroom. Tom Greenbowe, an Iowa State University professor of chemistry, has been working to improve chemistry education for more than 15 years. He has been working on a 'guided inquiry' approach to chemistry education for the past two years with a grant from the National Science Foundation. Greenbowe reported on the guided inquiry method in chemistry during the 2002 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in February.

Chemistry labs provide students with "hands on" experiences that reinforce basic chemistry principles taught in lecture. Too often the labs become step-by-step procedures the student follows with little time given to understanding the underlying concepts, said Greenbowe. The guided inquiry approach requires the student to be a more active participant and the lab instructor to act as a guide. It also encourages learning in the lab, while the experiment takes place, so students don't have to go home and work on a lab report, Greenbowe said.

"We think this develops better conceptual understanding," he added. "We're getting them to understand the concepts. Students don't just plug numbers into formulas, use a calculator, get a number, and not understand what that number represents." For more information, contact Greenbowe at (515) 294-7815, or Skip Derra, ISU News Service, (515) 294-4917.


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