The field of magnetic resonance includes a range of research
methods, such as nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and electron
paramagnetic resonance (EPR) spectroscopy, as well as magnetic resonance
imaging (MRI). The various methods are critical research tools in
fields including physics, chemistry, life sciences, materials research
“My research is focused on large systems, which are much more
complicated than small molecules,” Polenova said. “It requires very
special approaches and equipment to learn the details of the structure
and dynamics, to the atomic resolution.”
Some of her published research has provided new insights into the HIV
capsid, which is the protein shell that encloses the virus that causes
AIDS. Learning more about how the capsid develops and its role in the
infection process has provided investigators with important information.
“Understanding the structural biology of HIV gives us clues that we
hope might be a possible step toward treatment,” Polenova said.
Her research also focuses on microtubules, which carry essential
proteins in our cells. In a 2015 publication in Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences, her team reported the first-ever
atomic-resolution view of one of these proteins bound to a microtubule.
The finding provides critical insights into the way mutations in certain proteins cause neurological and degenerative disorders.
Her team’s microtubule and HIV protein assemblies analysis was made
through the use of an NMR technique called magic-angle spinning. A
sample is placed in a tube in the NMR instrument, which spins it inside
the NMR magnet at the precise angle needed to generate atomic-resolution
data about the sample’s structure.
“When you put the sample in, you can adjust the angle slightly, and
you adjust the temperature,” Polenova said. “When it spins, you can
observe every atom in the molecule. It’s like driving a car, and you’re
in the driver’s seat.”
Polenova, who earned her doctorate and conducted postdoctoral
research at Columbia University, joined the UD faculty in 2003. Since
2014, she has been director of the National Institutes of Health’s
Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) “Molecular Design of
Advanced Biomaterials” program at UD.
Article by Ann Manser; photos by Kathy F. Atkinson