Travel Report, June 2013

Travel Report, June 2013
Patrick J. Loll, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, DUCoM
My primary motivation for this trip was to connect with prospective collaborators at the
University of Avignon, to learn how we could best work together on projects of joint interest.
I first flew into Paris, and took advantage of this opportunity to
re-connect with an old colleague, Daniel Picot, who had been a
post-doc with me at the University of Chicago. Daniel is now a
scientist at the Institut de Biologie Physico-Chimique (Institute
for Physical and Chemical Biology) in Paris, a highly respected
research institute founded by the Edmond de Rothschild
Foundation. The Institute is housed within a historically
protected Art Deco building located in the 5th Arrondissement,
close by other intellectual centers such as the College de
France, the Institut Pasteur, and the Sorbonne. I was fortunate
to be invited to present a seminar at the IBPC, after which I met
with a variety of scientists working on different aspects of
structural biology and membrane protein biochemistry. This
group included scientists with expertise in areas that touch
closely on my research, and I came away with a number of
important tips on how to advance our own work, as well as a
good appreciation of what is happening at the cutting edge of
the fields.
The following day, I took advantage of the marvelous French high-speed rail system to head
south to Avignon—a journey of 550 kilometers, accomplished in great comfort and in only 2.5
hours. Emerging from the Avignon TGV station, I was greeted by both my hosts from the
University and by the fabled Mistral—a strong wind sweeping south down the Rhone valley,
bringing unseasonably cool weather (but also dispelling the rain clouds that had been shrouding
the South of France for much of the month). We lost no time in getting down to the science. My
hosts were the scientists who make up the Chimie Biorganique et Systèmes Amphiphiles group
at the University of Avignon (Bioorganic Chemistry and Amphiphilic Systems); our goal was to
explore our common interest in membrane protein crystallization and membrane protein
structure, and to seek ways in which we
expertise to bear on important research
problems, designing experiments and
preparing joint grant proposals. Toward
this end, the University of Avignon
offered me a generous visiting
professorship, which covered the costs
of travel from Paris, as well as my living
expenses in Avignon. This proved to be
tremendously valuable, as it allowed me
to stay in Avignon for an entire week,
enabling us to have extremely in-depth
discussions, go over data together, and
teach each other the nuances of our
various experimental approaches—all
things that would be extremely hard to
University of Avignon
accomplish by long distance. It also afforded me the opportunity
to meet with a large cohort of students from the University (and
potentially recruit future PhD students and post-docs to Drexel).
As part of my visiting professorship, I was charged with giving a
general talk to the University community as a whole, in which I
presented an educated layperson’s guide to the general topic of
membrane protein structure; this focused on both the
fundamental and applied importance of gaining insights into the
structures of these molecules, as well as the technical
challenges that impede such efforts (some of which I hope to
overcome, in league with my new French colleagues). I hope
that, in at a least a small way, this helped raise Drexel’s profile
in the South of France.
We had great success in identifying specific areas in which to
The author (center) with his
focus our collaborative efforts. In particular, the chemists at
hosts, Ange Polidori (left) and
Avignon have agreed to supply me with a variety of novel
Françoise Bonneté (right).
surfactants designed specifically for membrane protein
biochemistry, which are not commercially available, and to which only a few groups worldwide
have access. We have embarked on experiments to probe the performance of these
compounds in various systems; these experiments will form the foundation of both joint
publications and a joint application for grant funding to be submitted this fall.
In addition to cementing this membrane protein collaboration, I was pleased to form a new,
unanticipated collaboration with another member of the Avignon chemistry faculty, Dr. Christine
Pepin. Dr. Pepin focuses on nanotechnology research in which she produces dendrimeric
arrays of drug molecules and other therapeutics, which have in many cases proven more
efficacious and/or less toxic than the parent drugs themselves. By chance, this work dovetails
beautifully with another project in my lab, which happens to be unrelated to the membrane
protein work that drove me to undertake this trip. I returned home with a box full of reagents
from Dr. Pepin, together with plans for joint projects. This new initiative will greatly strengthen a
grant application I plan to submit this summer, and is an excellent example of the type of
fortuitous interaction that could only arise from an extended visit such as this one.
While most of this trip was given over to science, I could not neglect the opportunity to see
some of the sights in this historic and beautiful area.
Avignon is a medieval walled city, which was briefly the
seat of the papacy ca. the 14th century. The papal palace
still is the most prominent feature of the town, towering
over the rest of the city, which still retains the ancient
buildings and narrow winding streets which were found
during the time of the popes. I also ventured to nearby
Arles to see the remarkably well-preserved 1st century
Roman amphitheater and coliseum, perched near the
mouth of the Rhone. While all of this may seem
incredibly old, it is instructive to look closely at the
ubiquitous limestone, out of which all of these buildings
are fashioned; embedded in this stone, one can clearly
see the shells of long-extinct sea creatures that lived
hundreds of millions of years ago, which helps to provide
Palace of the Popes, Avignon.
perspective on the true meaning of “old.”
In conclusion, this proved to be a highly productive trip, simultaneously updating me on the state
of the art in many aspects of membrane protein structural biology and laying the groundwork for
not one, but two new collaborations that I fully anticipate will prove fruitful. I am grateful to the
University of Avignon for this honor, as well as to the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular
Biology and to the Office of International Programs for helping to support this endeavor.
Respectfully submitted,
Patrick J. Loll
Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology