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UI Physicist Receives National Science Foundation Grant for Genome to Phenome Research

August 03, 2017

A University of Idaho project examining changes in the amino acids that are the building blocks of life and how they lead to changes in living things was awarded a $6 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

The grant, awarded to Associate Professor F. Marty Ytreberg in the Department of Physics in UI’s College of Science, is among eight projects totaling $41.7 million awarded through the NSF’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) Program.

Ytreberg’s project, "Using biophysical protein models to map genetic variation to phenotypes,” will use computer simulations, mathematical modeling and experiments to determine how amino acid changes modify the way that proteins interact with other molecules.

"Our multi-disciplinary, multi-state team is very excited to begin working on this project,” Ytreberg said. “It will provide resources that lead to advances in science and technology, support the development of early and mid-career faculty, train students and postdoctoral associates and educate the general public. This research grew out of projects supported by the Center for Modeling Complex Interactions at UI.”

The project is part of the National Science Foundation’s goal to understand the relationship in organisms between genetic material, or genotypes, and their physical characteristics as a result of gene expression and environmental influences, or phenotypes.

The central hypothesis of the project is that protein biophysical models provide an efficient framework for predicting how mutations influence the way proteins fold and bind to other molecules. This information, in turn, will elucidate how these changes modify the characteristics of organisms. This research will contribute to basic scientific knowledge and will benefit society by advancing biotechnology, agriculture and human health. The work on protein binding, for example, will improve the ability to predict which pathogens will evade drug therapy or which molecules might interfere with protein function.

Ytreberg’s project includes a team of scientists and students at UI, the University of Vermont and Brown University. The results, expected to be released on an ongoing basis beginning in spring 2018, will be shared with the public via interactive animations, a website for dissemination of results and presentations for diverse audiences in all three states.

“This collaboration, led by Marty Ytreberg at the UI, will strengthen relationships among researchers in biophysics, computational and mathematical modeling, and biological systems from Idaho, Rhode Island and Vermont,” said Janet Nelson, UI vice president for research and economic development. “We are thrilled that the National Science Foundation has funded this cutting-edge research that has the potential to lead to advances in biotechnology and health sciences.”

The awards are made through NSF EPSCoR as part of its Research Infrastructure Improvement (RII) Track-2 investment strategy. RII Track-2 is intended to build national research strength by initiating research collaborations across institutions in two or more EPSCoR jurisdictions. EPSCoR is a program designed to fulfill NSF's mandate to promote scientific progress nationwide.

This project, “Using biophysical protein models to map genetic variation to phenotypes,” was funded under National Science Foundation grant No. OIA-1736253. The total amount of federal funds for the project is $6 million, which amounts to 100 percent of the total cost of the project.

Media Contacts:
F. Marty Ytreberg
Associate Professor, Department of Physics
University of Idaho

Brad Gary
Communications Coordinator
University Communications & Marketing

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