Seeking Solvation


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 (l-r) Profs. Irit Sagi and Martina Havenith at the opening ceremony for the launch of the Ruhr University Bochum’s Cluster of Excellence RESOLV

“Though water is one of life’s most essential, abundant and well-studied materials, the science behind its behavior and function is still poorly understood,” says Prof. Irit Sagi of the Weizmann Institute’s Biological Regulation Department. Sagi, a representative on the International Faculty Solvation Science, recently had the honor of opening the scientific section of the symposium marking the establishment of the new scientific discipline.

 “Solvation Science” is being launched under the auspices of a €28 million international consortium on water and spectroscopic science – the first of its kind – funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG). At its core is Germany’s Ruhr University Bochum’s Cluster of Excellence RESOLV (Ruhr Explores Solvation – solvents as active units), coordinated by Prof. Martina Havenith. International Faculty Solvation Science is a network of top institutions in the US, Europe, Asia and Israel, and it includes many of the high-profile scientists in the field.
Though solvation – the dissolving of a chemical substance in a liquid environment – is not new, the discovery that water plays an active role in the process is quite recent. Solvation is central to many important biological and industrial activities. The latter include pollution prevention, energy efficiency and corrosion, so gaining a deep understanding of this fundamental process is necessary to explain biological functions as well as develop key technologies. RESOLV aims to conduct fundamental research across various disciplines – biology, chemistry, materials science, engineering and computational biology – all based on the new perspective in which such solvents as water are active participants with functional roles in solvation, rather than the passive medium in which biological and chemical processes take place.

The pioneering work of Sagi, who is leading RESOLV’s biological projects, has already helped make great strides in this direction. The innovative, time-lapse, X-ray-based methods developed in her lab, combined with terahertz spectroscopy, enabled Sagi and her team, in collaboration with Havenith and Prof. Gregg Fields of the Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies in Florida, to reveal in atomic detail what happens when water molecules interact with an active enzyme. This led to the breakthrough discovery that water plays a vital role in the actions of the enzyme, actively helping it to recognize the target site on a second protein.

An understanding of the precise role water plays in the actions of different types of biological molecules can, among other things, help harness the properties of water for the design of drugs, including some that Sagi’s team is in the process of developing, as well as improving high-throughput drug screening technology.

Included in RESOLV’s strategies for promoting the exchange of knowledge, people and ideas among leading scientists at all levels of their scientific careers in the field of solvation science is the establishment of various fellowship and student exchange programs, workshops and young faculties, with an emphasis on advancing women.

Prof. Irit Sagi’s research is supported by the Spencer Charitable Fund; the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust; Cynthia Adelson, Canada; Dr. Mireille Steinberg, Canada; and the Leonard and Carol Berall Post Doctoral Fellowship. Prof. Sagi is the incumbent of the Maurizio Pontecorvo Professorial Chair.