Chemistry department receives NSF grant for nitric oxide research

Dr. Michael Shaw holds up a ball and stick heme model

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded $81,231 to SIUE’s Chemistry department to work on a new project entitled “Collaborative Research: Redox Behavior of Heme-NOx Models – A Vehicle for Outreach and Discovery.” SIUE Chemistry Chair Dr. Michael J. Shaw is directing the three-year project, bringing on undergraduate and graduate students to aid him in the research. Shaw will be working in collaboration with University of Oklahoma’s Chemistry Chair Dr. George Richter-Addo.

The project is focused on nitric oxide (NO) and its behavior within hemes, which are porphyrin compounds that exist as part of biological molecules like the oxygen-transporting blood protein hemoglobin. Nitric oxide plays a vital role in human and animal bodies, as it is important in the management of blood pressure and attacks bacteria in immune systems. Nitric oxide is indeed so powerful that it is vital for human and animal life.

“NOx is important in the body but it has to be managed in exactly the right way because otherwise it’s a poison. It’s a poison without which you would die. The heme is the mechanism by which it is managed,” Shaw explains.

To study the redox behavior in the research, Shaw and his students will be looking at the behavior of electrons in the hemes. Knowing the behavior of electrons is important because electrons hold atoms together, and when the number of electrons is less than it should be, it has massive effects on the particles, compounds, hemes, and overall, the body in which the nitric oxide resides.

Researching nitric oxide is not a new endeavor for Dr. Shaw. He and Dr. Richter-Addo were awarded a similar grant in 2008, and they have been collaborating their research since 2001. As Shaw and Richter-Addo’s current research is for “Redox Behavior of Heme-NOx Models,” adding the “x” to the NO is what has set this project apart from their earlier research on nitric oxide.

“Basically, the ‘x’ stands for the related family of nitrogen oxides,” Shaw says. “We focused on the NO for the first grant, and we’re broadening the focus so as to include some other interesting molecules as well. NO is so reactive that even the products of its reactions are still reactive…that’s why we’re putting the ‘x’ there to…indicate that there’s more happening with the NO and we want the flexibility in the project description to hunt those down.”

To find out more about nitric oxide, Shaw and his students will be building synthetic compounds and analyzing them, so no human blood will be extracted. This research, though not focused on disease states within human and animal bodies, can provide insight into diseases related to heme dysfunction by examining the fundamental chemical properties.

“Science is so big that you can only focus on one part at a time. [Chemists are] good at making the molecules. We’re good at figuring out what their properties are and divining their structures,” says Shaw.

Shaw brings about 20 years of experience analyzing these types of compounds to this project, so his expertise will help further the project and help his students gain in depth knowledge. Richter-Addo directs PhD groups at the University of Oklahoma and brings around 20 years of experience synthesizing the compounds, and together he, Shaw, and their students will be able to make fascinating discoveries about nitric oxide. Shaw believes that this collaboration will bring great benefit to both the universities and the students who have the opportunity to participate in the research.

“Having a master’s and undergraduate institution pair with a R1 PhD institution is a very attractive thing for NSF to fund in terms of broader impacts. Basically, we’re seen as bringing the undergraduate experience to the project,” Shaw says.

The students participating in this project must meet rigorous standards of excellence within the field. In their research, the students will gain experience that will ready them for either PhD work or industry work and be named as co-authors once Shaw and Richter-Addo are ready to publish.

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