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U research focuses on electrons in the body

A research team led by University of Minnesota biochemist Carrie Wilmot has created a molecular image of the system that moves electrons between cellular proteins.

All of our bodies contain cells that function as busy power brokers — as in electrical power, not political.

Proteins in the cells trade electrons to move power efficiently around the body.

Exactly how they do that was a mystery.

But now, a research team led by University of Minnesota biochemist Carrie Wilmot has created a molecular image of the system that moves electrons between cellular proteins. Their discovery was reported in the most recent issue of Science magazine

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Energy generated by movement of electrons inside our cells is the fundamental power source that enables humans to exist.

Our cells channel the energy to create complex molecules, such as protein and DNA. These are the building materials that enable organisms to grow, maintain themselves, and store energy.

Wilmot’s images, obtained using x-ray crystallography, will advance the effort to understand this process better.

“Evolution has been fine-tuning electricity in organisms for a lot longer than humans have been using it,” Wilmot said in a statement about the research. “We can learn a lot from nature about how to use it more efficiently.”

The finding has potential applications beyond biology.

Electronic circuitry is likely to shrink even further now that scientists can study the body’s microscopic model for transferring electricity, Wilmot said. Another potential is to learn from this natural system how to create more efficient grids for moving power to homes and businesses.

“Obtaining a crystal structure of a complex cellular electron transfer system is like being behind stage at a magic show,” said Vernon Anderson, who oversees biochemistry grants at the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

“We have always known there was a trick, but now the Wilmot group has provided a unique view of how this extraordinary chemical feat is accomplished,” he said.

Other scientists on the team were from Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois and the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.