Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis

Scientist Explores DNA Damage and Repair

Lei Li. Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Bioinorganic Chemistry

Helping combat potential killers such as anthrax, botulism and tetanus that strike people all over the world is the work of Lei Li, assistant professor of bioinorganic chemistry at the IUPUI School of Science.

Li’s research, exploring DNA damage and repair related to ultraviolet (UV) light in endospore-forming bacteria, earned him a three-year R00 grant for $750,000 from the National Institute of Environmental Health Science at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Li engages undergraduates, graduates and post-doctoral researchers in investigations focused on the DNA repair enzyme known as spore photoproduct lyase (SPL). Understanding how the SPL enzyme repairs DNA UV damage helps scientists develop inhibitors to prevent the damage repair process. The goal of the work is to discover mechanisms leading to the demise of spores causing harmful diseases.

“I have a strong interest in using chemistry to tackle and find solutions to biological problems,” says Li, who joined the school’s chemistry faculty in 2009. “IUPUI is a renowned institution with many experts studying various aspects of DNA biochemistry. I am pleased to participate in the collaborative chemical, biological and medical research taking place here.”

For the past decade, Li’s research in the area of bioinorganic chemistry has been recognized worldwide. His work to design copper complexes as anti-cancer drugs earned Li two international patent applications and the “Outstanding Invention of the Year Award” from the University of Maryland in 2001. Li is also widely published in top chemistry and biochemistry journals.

If delving into the SPL research isn’t enough, Li has recently joined forces with Dr. Jian Xie in the Purdue School of Engineering and Technology on a collaborative project studying the potential of hydrogen storage as a source of clean, renewable energy. Working with a $300,000 grant from General Motors, Xie has engaged Li to help design both zinc- and copper-based complexes to aid in the storage studies. This exploration is particularly promising because if hydrogen can be stored and burned as fuel, the byproduct is merely water, virtually eliminating harmful pollutants common with conventional fuels. Naturally, automotive companies have a strong interest in the research, but it has other applications as well.

Formerly with the University of Michigan, Li received one of the NIH’s most prestigious career development awards while on the U of M faculty. The Pathway to Independence Award, earned at the K99 phase (postdoctoral stage), provided Li the resources to study the structure and mechanisms of radical enzymes, including SPL.