Understanding a Heavy Metal Ballet

José Argüello, left, and postdoctoral fellow Nithyananda Thorenoor.

As biology has zoomed in from the level of the organism, to the cell, to the molecules that make up living things, questions of fundamental physics have come into focus. Today, basic scientists study molecular processes that operate in an ever-changing three-dimensional environment where the laws of physics are essential tools for understanding the machinery of life.

At WPI, José Argüello, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, explores mass transport at the molecular level in biological systems, a phenomenon at the intersection of physics, biology, and chemistry. He studies the structure and function of proteins that transport heavy metals such as copper, zinc, cobalt, and iron across cell membranes. These micronutrients perform fundamental tasks in all living organisms. By helping maintain protein structure and aiding in catalytic activity, they make possible a host of critical biological functions, including oxygen transport in animals and photosynthesis in plants.

“ I believe quality scientific research needs to be innovative, yet also grounded in solid preliminary data.” — José Argüello

Argüello’s pioneering studies have helped reveal the molecular dance required to move these ions, which are harmful to the cell unless safely bound to proteins, through the membrane and into the cytoplasm, where they can reach their destination: the proteins that become active once bound to them. It is a complex process in which the ions are handed from protein to protein, like a baton in a relay race.

In recognition of his contributions, Argüello earned a fouryear term on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Macromolecular Structure and Function (A) study section, a panel of leading scientists who study the role of heavy metals in biological processes. “I believe quality scientific research needs to be innovative, yet also grounded in solid preliminary data,” he says, noting that as he evaluates proposals for NIH funding, he looks for programs with great ideas and experienced research teams to pursue them.