Every day your DNA is damaged from normal cellular processes, chemicals, and ionizing radiation. DNA is normally repaired by DNA repair enzymes residing in your cells. However, DNA damage that is accidently left unrepaired can lead to the creation of mutant proteins within your cells that disregulate the cell's ability to work properly. Thus, such disregulation can lead to a variety of diseases, such as cancer.
Our laboratory at The Scripps Research Institute determines the structures of key proteins and enzymes involved in keeping your cells healthy, including DNA repair enzymes. The structures of these enzymes lead to better understanding of their functions and may lead to the development of new therapies and pharmaceuticals to combat the diseases in which they are involved.
We determine protein structures using a method called X-ray crystallography; however, sometimes human proteins are not amenable to the process of crystallization. In those cases, we then determine the structures of similar proteins from other species to gain the answers we are looking for. Proteins and enzymes from species that live at high temperatures often work better in this process; however, these species were all one-celled organisms that lacked the proteins we needed to study in order to combat cancer.
The discovery of the worm Alvinella pompejana that lives at high temperatures, should now provide a new source of "thermostable" proteins to study when the human proteins prove troublesome. Thus, my role on the cruise is to prepare DNA and RNA samples from the worm that will be used later to generate the proteins that we wish to study using X-ray crystallography.