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David Worcester

Associate Professor Emeritus of Biological Sciences
PhD, 1971 Harvard University

Office: 321 Tucker Hall
Phone: 573-882-6864
Headshot of David Worcester


Research summary

Structure and dynamics of biological membranes and membrane components

Research description

Neutron diffraction is being used to study structure and dynamics of membranes and membrane components. Phospholipids and Phospholipid/cholesterol mixtures are studied using lamellar diffraction and deuterium labeling. We prepare samples as highly oriented multi-layers of about 1000 membranes on quartz substrates, hydrated by relative humidity control. Some phospholipid samples are studied in the crystalline state using diffraction to 1.8Å resolution. Other samples are measured in more fluid/disordered states, as in biological membranes.

Neutron diffraction measurements were made at MURR and more recently as part of a new project at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Center for Neutron Research (NCNR) in Gaithersburg, Maryland. The project is Cold Neutrons for Biology and Technology (CNBT), a bioengineering research partnership funded by the National Institute of Health. The CNBT project constructed and now operates a new instrument, the Advanced Neutron Diffractometer/ Reflectometer (AND/R), to investigate structures of membranes and membrane proteins. See We are involved with several projects using this instrument, including a study of the S1-S4 voltage sensor domain of a potassium channel protein incorporated into phosphatidylcholine/phosphatidylglycerol multilayer membranes. Measurements of the M2 ion channel of influenza virus are also being made.

Other projects are the nature of hydrocarbon chain ordering by cholesterol and the molecular basis for the preferential interaction of cholesterol with saturated hydrocarbon chain phospholipids. This interaction is apparently responsible for “raft” formation in mixed lipid systems. We are also studying raft formation by in-plane neutron scattering from mixed lipids sandwiched between quartz plates. In these samples, some of the lipids are fully deuterium labeled to provide high contrast between the different lipid regions. A detailed description of research and results can be found at:

In another project, properties of cadherin proteins are being assessed by sequence analysis and molecular modeling. The cadherin superfamily includes classical cadherins involved in cell adhesion and also many unusual cadherins now recognized to be involved in diverse cellular processes such as planar cell polarity, growth control and opening of ion channels in auditory signal transduction. In our lab, the doctoral research of Nancy Vosnidou used computational quantum chemistry to examine cooperativity in calcium binding in cadherin proteins. This work shows the relative binding affinities of the different calcium ions and explains why calcium is often coordinated by seven oxygen atoms. Cadherin dimerization was examined by sequence analysis and molecular modeling. Several dimerization possibilities were found, suggesting that cadherin interactions are more diverse than is usually thought. These would be important in the interactions of the unusual cadherins, such as dachsous, fat and flamingo.

Select Publications

Select Publications

Xenon and other volatile anesthetics change domain structure in model lipid raft membranes. Weinrich M, Worcester DL.Phys Chem B. 117(50):16141-7 (2013). Epub 2013 Dec 6.

Structural changes in single membranes in response to an applied transmembrane electric potential revealed by time-resolved neutron/X-ray interferometry. Tronin A, Chen CH, Gupta S, Worcester D, Lauter V, Strzalka J, Kuzmenko I, Blasie JK. Chem Phys. 2013 Aug 30;422. doi: 10.1016/j.chemphys.2013.01.016.

Halothane changes the domain structure of a binary lipid membrane. Weinrich M, Nanda H, Worcester DL, Majkrzak CF, Maranville BB, Bezrukov SM. Langmuir, 28(10):4723-8. (2012). Epub 2012 Feb 28.

Krepkiy D, Mihailescu M, Freites JA, Schow EV, Worcester DL, Gawrisch K, Tobias DJ, White SH, Swartz KJ. Structure and hydration of membranes embedded with voltage-sensing domains. Nature. 2009 Nov 26;462(7272):473-9.

Dura, J.A., Pierce, D., Majkrzak, C.F., Maliszewskyj, N., McGillivray, D.J., Mihailescu, M., Perez-Salas, U., Worcester, D., Losche, M., White, S.H. 2006. AND/R: Advanced Neutron Diffractometer/Reflectometer for Investigation of Thin Films and Multilayers for the Life Sciences. Review of Scientific Instruments 77: 074301.