Chemical Biology – RNA Structural Biology
All proteins are macromolecules composed of long chains of different amino acids which fold into complex structures. We still do not know the three-dimensional structure of many important proteins. However, it can be made visible using three-dimensional models, such as those generated by professor Jens Wöhnert in his structural biological analyses. His research focuses on resolving the structures of complexes of various ribonucleic acids (RNA) and proteins that bind specifically to these RNAs during the biosynthesis of ribosomes. These laborious structural analyses are conducted with the aid of nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR). The Goethe University Frankfurt has some of the best equipment in the world for NMR experiments; it is used by numerous scientists to obtain highly specific structural data on biomacromolecules in solution. In his NMR studies, Wöhnert determines the relative positions of individual hydrogen atoms in molecules, which can be deduced by measuring the flow of energy between these hydrogen atoms in a magnetic field. In addition, NMR spectroscopy allows him to determine the exact binding sites, for example those of RNA and its ligands. However, the evaluation of the physical data collected is still time-consuming, since macromolecules – such as the riboswitches found in bacterial messenger RNAs, which Wöhnert also analyses – contain up to 600 hydrogen atoms. Indeed, larger molecule complexes are made up from several proteins and RNA strands. On the basis of his results, Wöhnert can determine which parts of the molecule are important for certain biological functions. In some cases, conclusions can be made as to the function of a particular protein on the basis of protein structure. Using this structural information, Wöhnert also investigates the question of where a gene must have mutated in order to vary in its functional strength, or in order for it to interact with other molecules.
He often collaborates with other groups in his department, who integrate Wöhnert's three-dimensional structures in their own research. Describing the process of his analytical research, Wöhnert says, "My work often proves to be like a puzzle: an overall picture slowly emerges from small details". Wöhnert gladly provides support to students who are curious about the NMR process and who are eager to discover how these experiments can aid them in compiling information about molecules.
Subsequent to completion of a degree in biochemistry in Halle, Jens Wöhnert completed his studies at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology in Jena with a doctorate, in which he determined the three-dimensional structures of ribosomal RNA domains using nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR). After conducting research at the chemistry department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, U.S.A., Wöhnert took up a postdoctoral research position at the Centre for Biomolecular Magnetic Resonance at Frankfurt University. There he built up his own group in the context of a collaborative research centre to investigate RNAligand interactions. In 2006, Wöhnert was offered the position of assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, U.S.A. In 2008, he was appointed to a newly created professorship, which is endowed by the Aventis Foundation, at the Goethe University Frankfurt.
Prof. Dr. Jens Wöhnert
Institute of Molecular Biological Sciences
60438 Frankfurt am Main
Telephone: +49 (0)69 798 29276