University of Victoria
Understanding how proteins recognize and break down carbohydrates may seem far removed from filling a car’s gas tank or finding a successful treatment for pneumonia. But, for those trying to convert carbohydrate-based biomass to produce biofuels or seeking solutions to antibiotic resistance, deciphering these interactions is crucial to success.
Biochemist Alisdair Boraston has generated numerous insights into the interactions between carbohydrates, proteins and enzymes, achievements that have earned him a 2012 E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship from NSERC.
Carbohydrates play vital roles in biological systems, including carrying energy, transmitting information and providing structure. Proteins and enzymes bind to carbohydrates and, in many cases, degrade or modify them. Bacteria often use this mechanism to break down a plant cell wall to free up energy. Some bacteria also interact with and degrade carbohydrates to modify their environment when they infect people.
By finding out exactly how these processes take place, Dr. Boraston can point the way to innovative solutions for encouraging (as in the production of biofuels) or discouraging (in the case of infections) the breakdown of carbohydrates.
During his tenure as a Steacie Fellow, Dr. Boraston will address both sides of this question. He will look at using new feedstocks for bioconversion into ethanol, and finding alternatives to antibiotics that would prevent harmful organisms from reaching the carbohydrates they are looking to break down. These are completely different challenges, yet both rooted in a more comprehensive awareness of how, by manipulating the relationship between carbohydrates and proteins, we could create novel scientific solutions that would benefit mankind.
Dr. Boraston is one of the world’s top experts on the structures and functions of carbohydrate-binding proteins. He is a Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research Scholar and holds the Canada Research Chair in Molecular Interactions.