Biology Department works with mutant proteins

Tim Caplan – News Editor

Assistant Professor of Biology at Rhode Island College (RIC) Bill Holmes and his team of six student researchers have been working with mutated tau proteins in an attempt to discover their cause. Tau proteins have an abnormal chromosomal makeup, which is the cause for a mutation.

According to “Science Daily” neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease have a buildup of tau proteins which damages the enzymes that the brain uses for learning and memory.

Professor Holmes received his Ph.D from Brown University and has published several articles for academic biology journals. He and his student researchers run experiments using the tau protein. The goal of the research on this particular mutant protein is to come to a better understanding of “tau misfolding and aggregation.”

This can be a confusing concept for people unfamiliar with the vernacular of a cell. In a RIC press release, one of the members of the research team, Senior Matt Schiavo, explained this process:     

Tau protein, Graphic courtesy of ric.edu

“When proteins are made by our cells, they consist of a long string of amino acids that all have to fold into a specific 3D shape in order to function properly. That folding happens with the aid of little chaperone proteins, little helpers, who help get that protein in the exact shape it needs to be to do its job. When the protein tau is healthy, it helps hold the cell in its proper shape, like scaffolding supports a building. When the protein misfolds it doesn’t get into the correct 3D shape, which can cause the protein to stick together with other misfolded proteins, forming clumps. These clumps of misfolded proteins are called aggregates and it’s a common feature in neurodegenerative diseases.”

Holmes and his team will continue to run experiments until they figure out the underlying cause to this mutation.