Brian Crane is a scientist and educator who studies the chemistry underlying biological signals, such as those that let cells track chemical gradients and stay in sync with daily circadian rhythms of light and dark. He focuses in particular on poorly understood chemical mechanisms—those that sense light, involve unstable intermediates, or require conformational changes within large complexes of molecules. He strives to understand cellular behaviors in terms of molecular structure and reactivity.
Crane’s team has uncovered key structures and mechanisms of proteins that make up signaling networks involved in bacterial chemotaxis—the ability of bacteria to regulate their motility in response to chemical gradients—as well as those related to circadian clocks and nitric oxide production. In the process of studying these signaling networks, his lab has increased the general understanding of cellular sensory machinery and how it assembles.
To study the networks that interest him, Crane relies on a number of different experimental techniques, including x-ray diffraction, time-resolved optical spectroscopy, dipolar electron spin resonance (ESR) spectroscopy, enzymology, bacterial genetics and unique methods of monitoring photochemical reactions in crystals. Using this wide array of approaches, he has characterized bacterial receptor systems that transduce signals across the cell membrane and key elements of the flagellar motor, which reads receptor output to drive swimming behavior.
He has also discovered how light signals cause conformational changes in fungal and animal photosensors. This work has enabled the design of variant proteins for use as tools to probe cellular function. And in his work on biological nitric oxide chemistry, Crane has described key structures and intermediates in nitric oxide synthesis, and demonstrated novel roles for nitric oxide in bacterial physiology, including the extreme radiation resistance possessed by some bacteria.
At Cornell, Crane’s teaching has been divided between introductory chemistry courses and advanced upper level classes. He has taught the chemistry department’s large, introductory courses, but has also worked to develop specialized higher-level courses for undergraduates, focused on bio-inorganic chemistry and the physical chemistry of proteins. In addition, he has served as director of graduate studies for chemistry, contributed to large-scale curriculum revision in both chemistry and biology, mentored undergraduates for research and senior projects and worked with Cornell’s pre-freshman summer program.
Outside of his work at the university, Crane is involved in outreach activities to bring chemistry to a younger audience. His efforts include trips to local schools, hosting 4-H students in his lab, involvement in the NASA Sharp program and high-school teacher training efforts. During the summer, he helps teach physical science to Chicago K-12 students as part of the High-Jump Program.