University of Alberta
Proteins are essential building blocks of life and critical to human health. Protein folding is the process by which a protein assumes its functional shape—from a random coil into a serviceable three-dimensional structure. When proteins misfold, they can cause many neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson’s disease.
Megan Engel is improving understanding of energy landscape theory, which is the framework for describing molecular folding. By applying theories from physics to understanding energy landscapes, her research will provide an important contribution to a growing interdisciplinary field of biophysics.
Engel is a University of Alberta graduate student in biophysics and winner of a master’s level NSERC 2012 André Hamer Postgraduate Prize. She was also recently awarded a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship.
Most protein folding takes place in a funnel-shaped landscape, leading the molecule down to the correct configuration. But some molecules have a rugged landscape, which causes molecules to become stuck and misfold. Engel will investigate one such protein, which is involved in Parkinson’s disease. Observing how a protein “hops” from one valley of the rugged landscape to the next could yield key insights into misfolding mechanisms.
Her research will make use of optical tweezers, which can manipulate micrometre- and nanometre-sized particles using two highly focused laser beams. By obtaining usable results from this technique and as yet untested forms of data analysis, Engel’s research will also demonstrate its viability in studying structurally complex molecules. She hopes to contribute to building a strong theoretical framework for biological folding problems, which would be useful in the field for years to come.