Protein structure and integrative modeling with ion mobility mass spectrometry explained using legos

by Sugyan Dixit (3rd year graduate student) and Sarah Fantin (2nd year graduate student)

On Tuesday, April 4th 2017, a collaborative effort between CSIE|UM, a graduate students/postdoctoral fellows led professional development group, and the Ann Arbor Hands on Museum, a local interactive science, math, and technology museum for children, put forward several activities and demos from different research groups at UM chemistry department. This event was the last event in a four part series called “Science for the Public” promoting understanding of scientific research to the general public.

Our lab put together a fun demo titled “Lego Fragmentation” to explain the public about the structure and function of proteins/protein complexes in general as well as give an idea of how we use ion mobility mass spectrometry (IM-MS) as a platform to study protein structure. There were two parts to this demo: 1) building a helix structure using the legos and 2) solving lego puzzles to correctly put together a structure. Several kids came over to play with legos and almost everyone tried to build the helix structure. This activity was aimed at introducing structure of peptides/proteins in a very simplistic manner.

Sarah (on the right) assisting the kid to build helix model with legos.

The second activity, “Lego Fragmentation”, was a bit more challenging as we put together two models of a structure with different breaking points in order for kids to analyze the pieces and put the pieces back to yield two identical models (IM-MS integrative modeling).

Level 3 model. Although they are identical, they have different breaking points yielding different pieces. The task is to analyze the pieces and put together the models as shown here.

We had three levels of difficulty, from easy to hard. Few kids attempted the puzzle. As soon as they got the idea of the puzzle from our easy assembly, they were excited to try the harder levels. Interestingly, the parents participated in solving the puzzle as well.

Sarah (on the right) engaging with parents and kids with helix building and lego puzzle demo.

While kids and parents worked together to build the lego model from its pieces, we got the opportunity to communicate the role of IM-MS integrative modeling in determining protein complexes’ structure and explain the importance of studying protein’s structure and function with the implication on understanding diseases and pathway for finding cure to diseases.


Ruotolo Group at Anachem 2016


Dan, Suggie, Chunyi and Sarah at Anachem 2016. Well done guys!

Congratulations Dan for winning the best oral presentation!

Below are the exciting research topics presented at Anachem from our group.

Daniel Polasky – Chemical modification for improved sequencing and structural analysis of proteins and protein complexes

Sugyan Dixit – Elucidating the structural heterogeneity of biomolecules in the gas phase using traveling wave ion mobility arrival time distributions

Sarah Fantin – Ion mobility mass spectrometry reveals the lipid binding behavior of integral membrane translocator protein

Chunyi Zhao – Ion mobility mass spectrometry investigates the architecture of a modular polyketide synthase