With this Research at Undergraduate Institutions (RUI) award, the Chemistry of Life Processes Program in the Chemistry Division is funding Dr. Jason Belitsky from Oberlin College to study the formation and structure of eumelanin, a pigment in humans that serves as a photoprotective agent. Current research suggests that eumelanin is formed from the self-assembly of dihydroxyindole oligomers and nanoparticles. Well-defined dihydroxyindole oligomers will be synthesized via iterative Suzuki coupling routes, and the self-assembly of these oligomers, their oxidation products, and metal ions will be studied using techniques such as NMR, UV-Vis spectroscopy, and scanning electron microscopy (SEM). Structure-activity relationships in the formation of micro- and nano- scale assemblies from well-defined oligomers will be sought to provide a molecular level understanding of eumelanin structure. In the long term, understanding the chemical and photophysical properties of eumelanin is an important goal given its incompletely defined biological functions and potential role in pathologies.
Despite public interest in melanin, its complexity and heterogeneity have provided obtacles to its study. Melanin is certainly a biopolymer with an important role in human biology, with particular significance in the biology of the skin and hair and a likely connection to pathologies such as skin cancer. A greater understanding of the chemistry of melanins would help illuminate their roles in human biology and disease, as well as in melanin-based materials for engineering, environmental, and biological applications. However, a fundamental understanding of melanins lags far behind other biopolymers, such as proteins and DNA. Here, the Beltisky group will use synthetic model compounds in a "bottom-up" approach toward the understanding of the formation and structure of eumelanin. As has been the case in the Belitsky group, undergraduate researchers will form the backbone of the research team. Additionally, the PI plans to integrate the research with his teaching at Oberlin College, such that up to 60 undergraduates per year get exposure to research-level synthetic chemistry transformations as part of their sophomore-level organic chemistry laboratory course experience.