Tulane professor wins NIH award to study how salt helps molecules mix

December 3, 2012

Kathryn Hobgood Ray
Phone: 504-865-5229

Bruce Gibb, a professor in the Department of Chemistry at Tulane University, hopes to solve a 120-year-old mystery with the help of a more than $1.1 million dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The mystery centers on why some molecules, such as oil, are repelled from mixing with water (the Hydrophobic Effect) and how some salts can increase or decrease a molecule's ability to dissolve in water.

Gibbs says that his team’s research could answer many questions about the structure of living organisms and contribute to our understanding of many issues involving water and salts, including the shelf-life and delivery of medicines, separation/purification technologies used to treated polluted water, and how pollutants are transported in the environment.

The grant will enable Gibbs to study the Hofmeister Effect, a phenomenon first observed by Franz Hofmeister in the 1800s while he studied the solubility and stability of proteins.

Although scientists have built up a reasonable picture of how molecular interactions bring about the Hydrophobic Effect, how this effect is impacted by the presence of salts is still a topic of vigorous debate. 

“At the molecular level, water, the ‘solvent of life,’ has a profound influence on the structure and assembly of proteins and other biomolecules, yet there are still many unknowns regarding the modus operandi of the Hydrophobic Effect," says Gibb. “Add to this the poorly understood influence of salts on the Hydrophobic Effect – and of course salts are present in all living organisms – and there’s a lot of research space to investigate.”

 “The results of our studies could provide an unprecedented view of the Hofmeister Effect at the molecular level -- one that one day we hope will explain why biomolecules do what they do in aqueous solution," adds Gibb.

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