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David Bricker
University Communications

Last modified: Monday, August 24, 2009

New science department at IU Bloomington links biology, chemistry, and medical sciences

Monday, Aug. 24, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The new Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry is the first science department created on the Indiana University Bloomington campus in 33 years, and is the culmination of more than seven years of planning. The IU Trustees recently approved the department.

Carl Bauer

Photo by Matt Brown

Microbial biochemist Carl Bauer, the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry's first chair

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"We don't only span the void between biology and chemistry, but from those fields to the medical sciences, too," said microbial biochemist Carl Bauer, who will be the department's first chair. "Most of our faculty study medically relevant viruses, like hepatitis B and C."

The department is offering M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in biochemistry, but does not award undergraduate degrees. Biochemistry faculty members will teach undergraduate courses, however, for their departmental allies, Biology and Chemistry.

"The creation of this department was a natural outgrowth of a very successful Interdisciplinary Program in Biochemistry," said College of Arts and Sciences Dean Bennett Bertenthal. "It will now complement the departments of Biology and Chemistry, and increase the attractiveness of the College of Arts and Sciences for studying the life sciences. An outstanding group of faculty members have transferred to the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry, and we anticipate that they will establish in the department a very high standard for research excellence and for the training of the next generation of researchers in this field."

As their field's name might suggest, biochemists bring principles of biology and chemistry to bear on questions about the natural world. Traditionally, biochemists focus on small things, like proteins or polysaccharides, and how these molecules interact with each other, or are influenced by environmental conditions, such as the presence of salts, or acids, or light. As medical science has gotten more interested in molecular mechanisms, however, work by biochemists increasingly forms the basis of new techniques and treatments employed by physicians to treat disease.

The nature of modern collegiate science is specialization (in this case, specialization upon specialization), and the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry will be no different.

"One of our priority areas is structural virology and virus assembly," Bauer said. "Prior to the department's founding, we had hired Cheng Kao and Adam Zlotnik, who are world leaders in this area. Even before that, we had a number of fine structural virologists here in Bloomington, like chemist Bogdan Dragnea, David Giedroc and biologist Tuli Mukopadhyay. Our department is brand new and already, IU Bloomington is one of the best places in the world for this type of science."

Understanding how viruses function provides great benefits to human beings. The obvious: by figuring out how viruses physically attach and infect cells, and how the viruses replicate, scientists can design better weapons against the pathogens. The not-so-obvious: since most viruses are programmed to attack one host cell type and not others, this means the virus shell can also be used to deliver drugs to specific cell types. Currently scientists are figuring out how to assemble the protein coat themselves, they merely remove the bad part of viruses -- their genome -- and replace it with something more benevolent, like a cancer drug.

The department has been a seven-year project. In 2002, Bauer helped establish the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Biochemistry at IU Bloomington, which relied on the participation of faculty and staff from Biology and Chemistry, as well as Psychological and Brain Sciences, Physics, the School of Optometry, and the Medical Sciences Program. That year, Bauer also joined the design committee for Multidisciplinary Science Building I, now know as Simon Hall. The graduate program offered 12 courses and guidance for research training. In 2007, Bauer and colleagues began recruiting biochemists to join the IU Bloomington faculty. Kao and Zlotnik are the first two hires resulting from those efforts. On July 1, the IU Trustees approved the establishment of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry.

Rohini Kohli

Photo by Greg Clark

Rohini Kohli is one of the department's charter graduate students

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Because the graduate program in biochemistry preceded the establishment of the department, IU Bloomington has already awarded Ph.D. degrees to eight students, all of whom "have gone on to great postdoctoral fellow positions at excellent universities," Bauer said.

The graduate program and chair's office will be located in Simon Hall. Simon was designed with the expectation that biochemists would use it; more than half of the laboratory and office space in Simon is reserved for biochemists.

The initial investments IU has made are already reaping rewards. The newest Biochemistry hires, Cheng Kao, Adam Zlotnik, and Crag Pikaard "have brought with them million of dollars in outside funding," Bauer said. "The recently assembled facilities and research tools for biochemistry in Simon Hall are second-to-none. We are really excited about what we have gotten going here, and are very optimistic about our future."

For more information about the department, please visit

For information on the Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry graduate program, please contact Suzanna Kindred at 812-856-1301 or visit Journalists who wish to speak with Carl Bauer or Bennett Bertenthal should contact David Bricker, University Communications, at 812-856-9035 or