• Maha Zewail-Foote

When Maha Zewail-Foote returned to the chemistry labs at UT-Austin for a sabbatical in 2009-2010, she never imagined it would lead to a publication in one of the world’s most important scientific journals.

But it did.

Zewail-Foote is one of two co-first authors on an article that will be published in an October issue of Nature Chemistry, the leading journal in original chemistry research. The article was published online Sept. 25.

Zewail-Foote, who is an associate professor of chemistry at Southwestern and chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, said she was ecstatic when she learned that the article had been accepted for publication.

“I knew this research was important and I knew it would be published in a good journal, but this was beyond my dreams,” she said.

Zewail-Foote conducted the work for the publication with researchers from the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at UT-Austin. Among them was Brent Iverson, who was on her Ph.D. committee when she was a graduate student at UT. Her co-lead author was Garen Holman, who conducted the research for his Ph.D. dissertation.

Their article, titled “A sequence-specific threading tetra-intercalator with an extremely slow dissociation rate constant,” details a major achievement in DNA binding by a synthetic molecule.

Zewail-Foote and her colleagues were able to document that this compound had a half-life of 16 days after it was bound to DNA. This is one of the longest non-covalent complex half-lives reported for a DNA-binding molecule. Zewail-Foote said this is significant because 16 days is enough time to disrupt biological processes such as transcription and replication. “Researchers have been developing small molecules to target DNA and modulate biological processes for more than 30 years,” she said.

Zewail-Foote said understanding fundamental processes such as this may someday enable researchers to develop drugs that can target specific DNA sequences with such long half-lives.

Zewail-Foote said she has been fascinated by DNA since she was an undergraduate at the California Institute of Technology. Her general chemistry and organic chemistry professors are pioneers in nucleic acid chemistry and were role models for her.

In addition to being an honor for herself, Zewail-Foote said the publication also is an honor for Southwestern. “Publications in Nature are few and far between for any university, let alone small liberal arts colleges,” she said.

Zewail-Foote said she has another reason to be proud of the publication. She is keeping up with her family tradition of high impact research in chemistry. Her father, Ahmed Zewail, won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1999.

“I’m continuing to keep the Zewail name in scientific circulation by publishing in Nature Chemistry,” she said.