Illinois State University Media Relations

Nov. 12, 2013

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NSF grant allows a sharper look

image of Chris MulliganSeveral researchers on campus will benefit from a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that’ll go toward an instrument designed for the intense study of molecules.

The nearly $400,000 grant will go toward the purchase of a liquid chromatograph-mass spectrometer (LC-MS). Assistant Professor of Chemistry Christopher Mulligan is the lead on the grant titled NSF MRI: Acquisition of a High Resolution LC-MS/MS System for Research and Education.

“Many people are going to use this instrumentation, and the impact will be very broad in terms of research and education,” said Mulligan. “This aligns well with the interests of NSF, not only in promoting research, but also enhancing education in scientific disciplines. Illinois State students will have the opportunity for hands-on usage of this state-of-the-art instrument.”

According to Mulligan, the LC-MS will replace an older model of a mass spectrometer housed in the Department of Chemistry. “In many ways, a mass spectrometer is like a computer – the older it gets, the more outdated it becomes. The one we have is 15 years old, so it is quite outdated. Our instrument is not as accurate as currently available LC-MS systems, so research can be hindered by the lag in technology.”

Mulligan explained the LC-MS assists researchers in identifying molecules. “Molecules are made up of arrangements of elements, and each element has a certain mass.  If you can get the exact mass of a molecule, then it’s like a puzzle,” he said, noting that the liquid chromatograph separates the molecules in complex samples and the mass spectrometer identifies them by their mass. The instrument can also be used for the ultrasensitive measurement of chemical levels in mixtures like water or blood.

image of moleculesSo far there will be 11 users of the LC-MS with multiple research projects, including Mulligan’s forensics research in developing ways to detect and identify items of interest at crime scenes for the U.S. Department of Justice.

Other research the LC-MS will support includes Professor of Biology Rachel Bowden’s continuing work studying hormone levels in turtles and Assistant Professor of Chemistry Andrew Mitchell’s work to build synthetic molecules inspired by those found in nature, hopefully leading to medicinal applications.

Also benefitting will be Assistant Professor of Health Sciences Michael Byrns, who is examining the effect wetlands have on removal of pollutants from sewage.

“Wetlands can be an added layer of protection, soaking up pollution that escapes the sewage treatment process,” said Byrns, who is examining the estrogen levels in groundwater and surface water at a wetland near a water treatment plant.

Byrns has faced challenges with the current mass spectrometer. He hopes the new LC-MS will provide results in a more timely manner. “I’ve worked with LC-MS at other labs, and it provides a faster way to measure estrogen levels,” he said.

The new instrument will offer multi-campus collaboration, with work from an Illinois Wesleyan University faculty member also factored into the grant.

Illinois State University

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