As he and his student researchers study the innermost workings of DNA and RNA, Dr. Brent Krueger of the Hope College chemistry faculty is as interested in improving the methods they're using as in the subject itself.
It's a dual-focused approach that he's pursued since joining the college's faculty in 2001. His work recently received a major boost through a three-year, $385,000 grant from the "Research in Undergraduate Institutions" (RUI) program of the National Science Foundation (NSF) that will help support his on-going project into 2014.
Krueger's team is studying the functioning of biomolecules called Hairpin Ribozymes in processes involving DNA and RNA. They are most interested in better understanding how changes to the Hairpin Ribozyme's structure during such processes relate to the way that it functions.
There's just one problem. "There are not a lot of techniques to see how structures change," said Krueger, an associate professor of chemistry.
As a result, he and his students have been developing the tools themselves. For the past 10 years, Krueger and his group have been exploring how to adapt a widely-used, established technique called "fluorescence-detected resonance transfer" (FRET), bit by bit figuring out how to overcome some limitations in the method through a combination of experimentation in the lab and computer modeling.
"Our goal is to make FRET a better technique for us and other groups to use in research," he said. "Along the way, we've learned a lot of little details about things researchers should be cautious of as they do FRET experiments, and good rules they should follow to get more accurate results. We're to the point that in the three years of this grant that we should be using these new methods to learn some useful biology about the systems that we're looking at."
One way in which the grant will provide a major boost is by enabling the college to purchase a fluorescence microscope, a high-end, $100,000 instrument that Krueger said is not found at many liberal arts colleges but more typically at graduate-level institutions that emphasize research. "Having this instrument is going to allow us to do both the experimental part and the computer-modeling part of the research in our lab," he said.
Even acquisition of the microscope is designed as a learning experience: the team will be assembling the instrument from components across the coming school year, deliberately giving the students an opportunity to learn through that process as well. In addition, Krueger noted, the microscope will also ultimately prove useful in other laboratory work and coursework at the college.
Krueger's lab includes four to five students working full-time during the summers and a smaller number working part-time during the school year. Aspects of the project are also integrated into the curriculum of an on-going summer program through which high school teachers come to campus to learn molecular modeling techniques and develop related lessons for their classrooms.