Urbana researcher receives national award

March 21, 2000

Explains how "liquid" glass keeps its shape

Chemist Peter G. Wolynes of Urbana, Ill., will be honored on March 28 by the world's largest scientific society for explaining how glass -- a kind of "frozen" liquid -- keeps its shape, and applying that insight to help explain the functional shapes of proteins. He will receive the Peter Debye Award in Physical Chemistry from the American Chemical Society at its national meeting in San Francisco.

Ten years ago, Wolynes and his group at the University of Illinois answered a deceptively simple question: How does glass remain solid?

The organization of glass molecules lacks the regular pattern that gives solids their characteristic rigidity. The particles are jumbled, as in a liquid. But while describing glass as a liquid is popular science trivia, it's inaccurate, said Wolynes.

"I would call glass a disorganized crystal, a sort of liquid in a frozen state," he said. "Almost any liquid will form a glass, as long as you cool it fast enough so it doesn't have time to organize.

"The basic idea of what we showed is that even random structures can still be stable," he continued. "Think of jigsaw puzzle pieces. Even though the shapes are irregular and they don't repeat, they do fit and stay together."

Wolynes is applying this mathematical insight to another problem: how new proteins fold themselves into precise, three-dimensional shapes. Researchers know proteins need particular shapes to function, but they assume them too quickly to study in the laboratory. And reproducing the speed properly in computer simulations requires lowering the virtual temperature.

"At that point, the proteins are too cool to assume their original structure. You could say they're trapped in a glass state," said the physical chemist. "One way of overcoming the computer-time problem is to develop simple models of the driving forces which avoid that trap."

Algorithms developed by Wolynes -- used in the field worldwide -- can be used to compare simulated protein shapes and those found in nature. Each helps develop a model that can be used to predict a protein fold from its sequence. The discovery has myriad applications from environmental cleanup to drug design.

The Peter Debye Award in Physical Chemistry is sponsored by E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co. of Wilmington, Del.
A nonprofit organization with a membership of 161,000 chemists and chemical engineers, the American Chemical Society www.acs.org publishes scientific journals and databases, convenes major research conferences, and provides educational, science policy and career programs in chemistry. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

American Chemical Society

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