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Disrupting Lipid Domains to Combat Viruses

Francisco Barrera observes a graduate student's workMuch like the walls of a house protect the people and objects inside it from the outside, cell membranes surround and protect individual cells. Also known as the plasma membrane, the cell membrane serves as a barrier to the external environment and is involved in a number of complex cellular processes, including cell signaling.

Cell signaling is the system of communication by which cells perceive and respond to their environment. Miscommunications in cell signaling and information processing are thought to be responsible for autoimmune diseases, cancer and diabetes. Cell membranes regulate this entire process but much of how and why membranes are organized is unknown.

Francisco Barrera, assistant professor in the department of biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology, seeks to change that with his Joint Directed Research Development (JDRD) project. Barrera’s project is focused on the formation of lipid domains, or groupings of lipids, in the cellular membrane and how proteins impact them.

“It’s an area many people are investigating. They are believed to be important for instance with viral infection,” said Barrera. “When a virus comes to a cell, some types prefer to attach where these lipid domains are present. Scores of key physiological functions have been associated with the formation of lipid domains.”

Graduate student working in Francisco Barrera's labBarrera’s JDRD team hopes to characterize how proteins affect these domains by using a very simple synthetic protein. Barrera believes the experiment will show the proteins disrupt the formation of lipid domains, thereby failing to create those attractive targets to viruses. This research could have far reaching implications.

“Lipid domains are involved in a large number of processes, so this information will inform several areas of cell biology, including signal transactions and drug interactions,” said Barrera.

Barrera’s team is partnering with Xiaolin Cheng, Fred Heberle, and John Katsaras at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Methodology designed by Katsaras and Heberle will be used in Barrera’s experiment. Additionally Barrera, Katsaras, Heberle and Cheng are active participants in a recently launched biomembranes initiative developed by the Joint Institute for Biological Sciences (JIBS).