Even the casual follower of academic science and industry R&D will recognize that most areas of scientific inquiry are quickly becoming interdisciplinary in nature. The reason for this is both simple and exciting. Technology and broad experimental proficiency have allowed the scientist to start asking bigger, more complex questions. The tools of molecular biology and genetics are helping introduce new innovations to the fields of chemistry, ecology, archeology, and even physics, to name a few. Importantly, this transforming principle goes both ways. The tools and principles of chemistry are quickly becoming an integral part of modern biology. Historically, the fields of chemistry and biology were considered distinct disciplines, each applying its own technology and methods to solve problems within their own field of study. The boundaries between the chemical and biological sciences are rapidly dissolving as scientists increasingly use chemical tools and concepts to explore mechanism, structure and function in complex biological systems at the biochemical, genetic and organismal level. The introduction of the Biochemistry major at Ave Maria University starting Fall 2012 reflects the importance of this interdisciplinary approach.
The new Biochemistry major was initiated by Dr. James Peliska and Dr. Joshua Lees of the Department of Biology and Chemistry. Dr. Peliska is no stranger to starting major programs. He joined AMU in 2002 as the founding chair of the Department of Biology and Chemistry. He remained in that position, having overseen the initiation and growth of the Biology and Chemistry program, until the fall 2010 when he stepped down as chair to pursue his research program more actively. Dr. Peliska received his Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and then received a NIH postdoctoral fellowship to study the biochemistry of reverse transcription of Human Immunodeficiency Virus-1. The study of this complex biochemical process involved in the replication of the viral genome sparked a long-term fascination to understand the mechanisms of DNA replication and the processes that lead to drug resistance in this important viral target. Dr. Peliska has actively pursued this line of research for over 21 years, identifying new inhibitors of HIV-1 reverse transcriptase (RT, the main replicating enzyme of the virus), publishing studies on the mechanisms of reverse transcription and the properties of mutants of HIV-1 RT that give rise to drug-resistant strains of HIV-1. While a faculty member at the University of Michigan, he had the opportunity to collaborate extensively and successfully with a pharmaceutical partner to discover new inhibitors of HIV-1 reverse transcription. He continues these important studies today in the laboratories of AMU.
One of the hallmarks of the new Biochemistry major is an emphasis on student research participation. Under the mentoring of Dr. Peliska, students work collaboratively with other Biochemistry students on projects directed toward the development of new bacterial screening methods that promise to provide important ways of identifying and characterizing novel inhibitors of HIV-1 RT, as well as predict and analyze the propensity to develop drug-resistant mutations. These results will play a role in the understanding viral replication and in the development of potential new drugs against this disease-causing viral target. These studies combine techniques in synthetic organic chemistry, enzyme kinetics, protein chemistry, structural biology, genetics and microbiology. Modern biochemical research such as this is heavily dependent on modern instrumentation and facilities, and the excellent research facilities at AMU make these projects possible. For more information on Dr. Peliska, his publication record and his research, visit the AMU Biochemistry webpage at http://mysite.avemaria.edu/jpeliska/Chem/BIOCHEMHOME.htm