UM Grant

Postdoctoral fellow Asia Marie Riel, left, and undergraduate Madeleine Boller are two of the researchers working in UM chemistry faculty member Orion Berryman’s lab to develop molecules that can bend into helical shapes.

MISSOULA — A proper balance of molecules within the body is key to preventing many diseases, and University of Montana chemistry researchers are working to understand and maintain this critical balance. Thanks to funding from two new grants totaling more than $400,000, chemistry faculty member Orion B. Berryman and his team can delve deeper into the molecular biology behind disease like cystic fibrosis.

Berryman’s lab will use the first grant, a three-year National Science Foundation Disciplinary Research Program Grant of $420,000, to study what is known as hydrogen bond-enhanced halogen bonds. These bonds are forces within a molecule that can be used to help control its shape and therefore affect its properties.

Berryman and his researchers are studying this bonding as they design new molecules to aid in investigating and combating the diseases that occur from malfunctioning cell-membrane channels.

“This grant is important because of the myriad diseases associated with anion channelopothies,” Berryman said. “Finding new ways to study and treat these diseases will have a positive impact on human health.”

When the delicate balance of molecules within a cell is disrupted, it can result in diseases such as cystic fibrosis, where too much chloride causes a build-up of mucous in the lungs or bartter syndrome — an imbalance of potassium, sodium, chloride and other molecules that negatively affects the kidneys.

The molecules Berryman’s team are building are able to fold into a predictable helical shape, which produces tiny pores and allows anions to move across cell membranes, maintaining the body’s balance of molecules.

The second award for Berryman’s lab will aid a critically underrepresented group at work on the molecule-building project — female undergraduate chemistry students.

The funding allows postdoctoral fellow Dr. Asia Marie Riel to help enhance the experiences of female chemistry undergraduates during the 2020-21 academic year with $5,000 awarded by the University Grant Program.

“A significant topic among women in STEM is the lack of representation in the field as mentors, which highlights the importance of this grant to foster women mentoring women in chemistry,” Riel said.

She said studies show that women who participate in research at the undergraduate level develop self-efficacy in chemistry research and identify themselves as scientists, ultimately staying in science-related careers.

Riel works with three female undergraduate students in Berryman’s lab — McKenna Wendt, Madeleine Boller and Emily Carroll — who were all recruited for their passion for chemistry. The trio will synthesize and study the synthetic molecules that can help with anion transport across cell membranes.

Building a molecule requires patience and precision. Since the molecules are synthetic, they first must be purified and identified.

“Many of the molecules we are generating in the lab are novel compounds, meaning no one has made them before, and they are not found in biological sources,” Riel said. “An important part of the work, aside from mixing chemicals, is proving that you made what you think you made. Only after the confirmation of the molecules’ identity can we then study its properties.”

As the undergraduates work on molecule-building research, they will receive mentoring from Riel, whose passion lies in teaching chemistry both in the classroom and the lab and inspiring the next generation of scientists.

“I am excited to mentor and teach hands-on chemistry to young women scientists and hope that this grant provides an experience to motivate them to continue their pursuits of a STEM-related career,” she said.

The lab has already made significant progress, having recently produced a long, linear molecule that spontaneously folds into a helix.

“We have new results that confirm the helical coiling of these molecules,” Berryman said. “Really exciting stuff.”

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