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IU physics researchers evaluate ways to keep omega-3 fatty acids potent

Physics researchers use Big Red II to assess vitamin E’s ability to protect vital fatty acids

IU physics researchers evaluate ways to keep omega-3 fatty acids potent

Omega-3 polyunsaturated acids (n-3 PUFA) are fatty acids found in fish oils that have multiple health benefits. Various research has shown that dietary consumptions of fish oils can help with cardiovascular diseases, cancer preventions, inflammatory processes, and metabolism improvements. However, it is easy for these fatty acids to be oxidized, and once oxidation happens, health benefits are likely to be lost. Therefore, it is crucial for science to find a way to prevent the oxidation of n-3 PUFA consumed in the diet, and one possible solution is vitamin E. Currently, this is the focus of Samuel Canner, a talented undergraduate student working with Steve Wassall in the Department of Physics at IUPUI. Canner explains that currently, whether vitamin E preferentially protects n-3 PUFA is not properly understood. He and colleagues at IUPUI and other institutions have been hard at work trying to figure out how vitamin E interacts with phospholipids into which n-3 PUFA incorporate in cell membranes and protects this influential group of molecules from being oxidized.

Sam’s simulations provide unprecedented detail on the molecular interactions of vitamin E in membranes and will help inform dietary recommendations. It is a remarkable contribution from an undergraduate student!​

Stephen R. Wassall, Professor in the Department of Physics at IUPUI

Example of umbrella sampling simulations: vitamin E (purple) is 'pulled' from a lipid membrane containing SOPC (orange) and cholesterol (green)

To do this, Canner runs sophisticated simulations on patches of model membranes in Nanoscale Molecular Dynamics (NAMD). These simulations allow the team to better understand the molecular interactions between vitamin E and n-3 PUFA. The simulations are run using Big Red II, a supercomputer at IU. Why Big Red II? Canner explains if they used normal computational machines, such complicated simulations would take months to complete. Specifically, he said, “Big Red II allows the simulations to be completed in a significantly more reasonable amount of time.” Because these simulations require a large computational capacity, it would take several months using a personal computer. Therefore, Big Red II helps the researchers run the simulations in a reasonable amount of time.

Currently, Canner is running more simulations and has begun experiments in the Wassall lab with support from the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) at IUPUI. Hopefully, the results will reveal conclusive evidence regarding the roles of vitamin E. Canner is hoping that this research would help science find a way to prevent the oxidation of n-3 PUFA incorporated into membranes, and so protect the health benefits contained in fish oils.