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Tim Griffin

Tim Griffin is one of the University's leaders in proteomics, the study of the structure and function of proteins.

The next big thing

The field of proteomics makes genomics look easy

By Mary K. Hoff

Published on May 21, 2005

A decade ago, biology was abuzz about genomics, the study of the structure and function of genes. Today the word to watch is "proteomics"--the field that focuses on proteins and how they alter, and are altered by, other cellular components. Scientists have begun to amass knowledge of the proteome, which is all of the proteins produced by a given species, just as the genome is the totality of the genetic information possessed by that species. "Proteins are the major workhorse factors in cells," says David Bernlohr, professor and head of the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, and Biophysics (BMBB). "They form many of the structures involved in cellular integrity, they catalyze the reactions necessary for cellular function, and they facilitate the transmission of genetic materials. Many diseases are really problems with protein function. As a consequence, we're trying to understand the complexity of the proteins in a cell."

"The whole proteomics field is one that's just ripe with questions," says Griffin.

Tim Griffin, assistant professor of BMBB, is one of the University's leaders in proteomics. Five years ago, he, like many other biochemists, focused his attention on genes. "That was fun and exciting, but then I moved on," he says. "Proteins present an even more complicated challenge.... The whole proteomics field is one that's just ripe with questions." And it's hefty, too. A human cell has some 30,000 to 35,000 genes--and perhaps 10 times that many different proteins. "And those proteins are associated with other proteins," Bernlohr says. "It makes plain old genes seem pretty simple." Griffin is currently working to develop new techniques for applying mass spectrometry--a technology that measures the mass-to-charge ratio of a molecule--to analyzing proteins. When information about the mass and charge of a protein is combined with information about an organism's genome, researchers can answer a variety of questions. "The proteome is extremely complicated, with many levels of information," Griffin says. "What we do is develop the tools that will allow us to answer questions about what proteins do." He's currently working with Bernlohr to look at how obesity alters proteins within a cell. He's also collaborating with School of Dentistry professor Nelson Rhodus to study how saliva-borne proteins differ between healthy people and those with oral cancer. To make the most of opportunities in this emerging field, BMBB last July instituted the Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics Initiative with $2 million in support from the Academic Health Center and the Graduate School. "The idea is to stimulate research in proteomics and to allow investigators to develop new grants and new initiatives in protein technologies in both agriculture and health sciences," Bernlohr says. The funds are being used to acquire new technology and support staff, and to provide seed grants that allow investigators to gather preliminary data needed to win major federal grants. According to Bernhohr, every institution is investing mightily in the study of proteomics. "Minnesota has really first-rate facilities, and the availability of computational power through the Supercomputing Institute has allowed us to be a leader in this field."

From BIO magazine, spring 2005.