UW-Madison undergraduate Kyle Connors operates a mass spectrometer in the new NIH National Center for Quantitative Biology at UW–Madison. PHOTO: NICK WILKES

It is proteins that do the work in the body: Hemoglobin, for example, holds oxygen for transport in the blood stream, while insulin helps regulate sugar in the blood. Knowing which protein forms are present in what quantities, their subcellular location and their function is critical to understanding health and disease.

The scientific technique of mass spectrometry, or mass spec, can already recognize proteins, but the researchers are eying a speed-up akin to that which revolutionized genetics research over the past 20 years.

Genes are vital carriers of information and templates for proteins, says co-investigator David Pagliarini, a UW–Madison professor of biochemistry. But genes alone don’t explain everything.

“There is lot of action between the gene, the protein it patterns, and the actual biological result,” he explains. “Mass spec technology allows you to measure the proteins, which are closer to action, and we plan to push the limits on pace, depth, throughput.”

The center, funded at $6 million by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will develop and make available advanced protein measurement technologies, says Josh Coon, a UW–Madison professor of biomolecular chemistry and an expert in mass spec. “These are complicated, high-end instruments that hundreds or thousands of biomedical researchers who are funded by the NIH need access to. There are many problems that are not solved with current technology, and that high-throughput mass spec can address.”