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2006 Distinguished McKnight University Professors

Professors Karin Musier-Forsyth, center front, and left to right, Christopher Uggen, Ilja Siepmann, and John Bischof at the awards ceremony May 11.

New McKnights shine-no armor needed

Distinguished McKnight University Professors show scholarly ideal at the U

By Deane Morrison

May 15, 2006

Just as everybody who types makes the occasional typo, so does the machinery of living cells as it tries to translate messages from genes. Enough mistakes could kill a cell, and Karin Musier-Forsyth aims to encourage such errors--not in people, of course, but in bacteria that cause disease.

On Thursday the chemistry professor and three other faculty members were rewarded for outstanding scholarship with Distinguished McKnight University Professorships, the University's way of thanking and encouraging its finest mid-career faculty members.

2006 DISTINGUISHED MCKNIGHT UNIVERSITY PROFESSORS

John Bischof
, mechanical engineering

Karin Musier-Forsyth, chemistry

J. Ilja Siepmann, chemistry

Christopher Uggen, sociology

For more information about the awards, see Distinguished McKnight University Professors.

Established in 1995, the Distinguished McKnights carry a five-year, $100,000 stipend, which recipients may spend as they see fit for research, scholarly, or artistic activities. Honorees are also presented to the University's Board of Regents at a public ceremony, as Musier-Forsyth and her fellow winners--professors John Bischof, mechanical engineering, J. Ilja Siepmann, chemistry, and Christopher Uggen, sociology--were Thursday afternoon. All are faculty on the Twin Cities campus.

In her research, Musier-Forsyth focuses on a family of enzymes whose job is to make sure that cells produce the correct proteins. Proteins are put together in assembly-line fashion, much like cars. Each "part" is an amino acid, and if the wrong one is inserted in a growing protein chain, it could have an effect similar to putting the stick shift where the turn signal should be. It falls to enzymes called synthetases to pluck the right amino acid out of the cellular toolbox and pass it on to the correct molecular "mechanic" for insertion into the protein. This basic process takes place in organisms from bacteria to humans. "But some synthetases make mistakes," says Musier-Forsyth. To forestall errors, however, the enzymes have a mechanism to "proofread" their work. The part of the enzyme that performs this function is called, appropriately, the "editing domain." Sound complex? Yes, but the multiple roles that synthetases perform also mean multiple points of attack for chemists seeking to shut them down. "Our ultimate goal is to understand enough to induce more mistakes in bacteria, perhaps by knocking out editing domains on bacterial synthetases," says Musier-Forsyth. She and her colleagues also have shown that a particular human synthetase is "kidnapped" by the HIV virus and incorporated into new viral particles. There it is used to begin the process of transforming HIV genetic material (RNA) into DNA, which can commandeer a human cell's genetic machinery.

"The University has been a great place to do this kind of interdisciplinary research...trying to bridge work being done in the Medical School with work in the basic sciences, using the tools of chemistry."

Musier-Forsyth credits the University's interdisciplinary research structure, particularly the Institute for Molecular Virology and the Chemical Biology initiative, for nurturing her work. "The University has been a great place to do this kind of interdisciplinary research," she says. "We're trying to bridge work being done in the Medical School with work in the basic sciences, using the tools of chemistry to understand and inhibit or enhance biological processes." For their part, Bischof, Siepmann, and Uggen have also wrestled tough problems en route to advancing knowledge in their fields.

Bischof is known for his work on cryopreservation, in which biological materials are subjected to extremely low temperatures to keep them from degrading. He has introduced revolutionary new methods for measuring sperm and tissue response during freezing and has discovered and patented molecules that improve the outcome of surgery involving cold or heat treatment of tissues. Siepmann has made his mark for pioneering research in the molecular simulation of complex chemical systems and processes. His work has answered fundamental questions about chemical processes that could not be approached by experiments. Uggen ranks among the world's most influential scholars on issues related to the civic and socioeconomic reintegration of criminals and is an authority on felon disenfranchisement. Read more about the Distinguished McKnight University Professorships and the McKnight Land-Grant Professorships, both programs of the Graduate School.