Kent State Researchers Win NSF Grant to Study Lipid-Protein Interactions

Centuries of research and discovery have given scientists a fairly comprehensive understanding of human biology, but many mysteries remain about some of the body’s most fundamental processes.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded a three-year, $423,000 grant to two of Kent State University’s most prolific researchers to study one of those biological fundamentals in depth.

​​​​​​Lipid droplets are fat particles critical to the supply and regulation of energy within the cell, and serve various other roles in diverse cellular processes.

Dr. Edgar Kooijman, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences, and Dr. Elizabeth Mann, Professor of Physics, both in the College of Arts and Sciences, will spend the next few years researching how proteins that form inside the cell target and bind to the surfaces of lipid droplets, where they regulate droplet structure and function.

“Over the past few decades biologists have found all kinds of different roles for these droplets/particles” Dr. Kooijman said. “Viruses use lipid droplets to replicate, there are different cellular pathways that flow through the lipid droplet, and there are lots of connections between these droplets and many quite disparate cellular processes.”

While much is known about how proteins bind to the lipid membranes that compartmentalize complex cells, very little is known about their interactions with lipid droplets.

“The cell itself has a lot of water in it. So there you have a kind of bio-emulsion. It’s an oil droplet in a very complicated aqueous (water) environment,” Dr. Mann said. “The membranes of a cell consist of a lipid-protein bi-layer, a double layer of lipid molecules with proteins interspersed in it. Whereas a lipid droplet is an oil particle with a lipid-protein monolayer to assure the oil stays in solution.”

“What we’re after is to understand how proteins interact with what is fundamentally a very different interface,” Dr. Kooijman added.

Mann and Kooijman said a better understanding of protein-lipid interactions could lead to potential advances in treatment of lipid-related disease like diabetes and atherosclerosis.

“Type II Diabetes is essentially insulin resistance,” Dr. Kooijman said. “One of the things we know happens in muscle cells is that if these cells accumulate too much fat (oil) it leads to dysregulation of the insulin sensing machinery and the inability to properly respond to the insulin signal. Ultimately leading to insulin insensitivity.”

Excess cellular lipids thus block receptors that regulate blood glucose levels, and these increased sugar levels signal the pancreas to release more insulin, creating a vicious feedback loop that ultimately damages the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas.

In addition to the research itself, the grant provides funding for both professors to offer meaningful research experiences to students from lower socioeconomic and minority backgrounds, with the goal of increasing STEM degrees among diverse students.

Emily Vincent:
Dan Pompili: 330-672-0731,


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