Dr. Neocles Leontis

Olscamp Research Award winner Dr. Neocles Leontis (left) and Dr. Felix Castellano, last year’s winner.

Olscamp award goes to Leontis for RNA research

Dr. Neocles Leontis, chemistry, has received the Olscamp Research Award for 2006. Given annually to a faculty member for outstanding scholarly or creative accomplishments during the previous three years, the award includes a $2,000 cash prize and a reserved parking spot for a year.

Leontis, who has been at BGSU since 1987, has devoted his career to studying the very building blocks of life: DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and RNA (ribonucleic acid)—their structures, functions and interactions. Using physical, chemical, biological and theoretical methods, he has not only made significant discoveries himself, but his work has helped other researchers around the world classify and integrate the knowledge they are producing.

“He is an acknowledged expert in nucleic acid structure,” wrote nominator and research collaborator Dr. Helen Berman, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University and director of the Protein Data Bank. “His very careful analysis of the available data has led to novel representations of RNA structures.”

Leontis is particularly well known for the development of an RNA base-pair classification system that has been adopted by the Nucleic Acid Database, the international repository for RNA 3-dimensional structures. Developed in collaboration with Dr. Eric Westhof, director of the Institut Universaire de France, the classification is one of the building blocks for creating an RNA ontology, or naming system, according to chemistry department chair Dr. Michael Ogawa.

In recognition of his work in developing a nomenclature for RNA structures, the international RNA Society selected Leontis to lead the RNA Ontology Consortium. Begun in 2005, the five-year project is funded by a $500,000 National Science Foundation grant and is one of its Research Coordination Networks, whose goals are to “encourage and foster interaction among scientists” and to facilitate “innovative ideas for implementing novel networking strategies.”

The ontology consortium is developing a common vocabulary and scientific concepts relating RNA structure and function to allow RNA scientists worldwide to communicate with one another and to integrate different kinds of information they obtain about RNA molecules. That will make it easier to turn molecular information into useful knowledge that can help scientists understand how different cells grow and develop as they do.

While some researchers focus on the sequences of RNA molecules, others study their 3-D structures. A major focus of the project will be to integrate the databases of RNA sequences and 3-D structure.

“Since the start of the grant, several meetings have been held in various parts of the world and, now, several laboratories are working together on the RNA ontology, each taking charge of an aspect of RNA structure,” wrote Westhof. “This is a complex and delicate enterprise for which Neocles is gaining further respect and reputation.”

Added Berman, “Much of the success of this effort is due to the leadership, energy, vision and intellectual contributions of Neocles Leontis.”

Leontis has experience in both the sequences of RNA molecules and their 3-D structures. Methods he has developed for analyzing and classifying RNA structures have been adopted internationally to advance RNA structure prediction and simulation and RNA sequence analysis.

Another collaborator, Dr. Biao Ding of Ohio State University, wrote of Leontis’s Isostericity Matrix that it “allows a researcher to predict the 3D structure of an RNA motif without experimentation.” Leontis and Ding recently published results of a biological experiment testing Leontis’s matrix in the prestigious Journal of Virology. The piece “received enthusiastic reviews for its novelty and expected high impact,” said Ding. The two later presented the work at the American Society for Virology to great interest from both plant and animal virologists, Ding said, and several virologists have contacted Leontis for help investigating the 3-D structures of their viral RNA motifs.

Leontis is affiliated with the BGSU Center for Biomolecular Sciences and the Northwest Ohio Bioinformatics Consortium, and is known internationally for his work on RNA structural bioinformatics (the field of science in which biology, computer science and information technology merge). His work is supported by the National Institutes for Health and the American Chemical Society.

November 6, 2006