Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada
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NSERC Presents 2 Minutes With Megan C. Engel
University of Alberta


Video Name

2 Minutes with Megan C. Engel


NSERC Communications



Release Date

March 8, 2013


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.

Megan C. Engel

One of the biggest unanswered questions in science is how biological molecules self-assemble. So diseases like Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's diseases are caused when proteins don't fold the way they're supposed to. So they misfold. The fundamental building blocks of a protein are amino acids. So in your cells, these proteins kind of get assembled on an assembly line. So amino acids kind of get stacked together in a one-dimensional line. But somehow there's this mystical folding process, and this one-dimensional line of amino acids folds into a three-dimensional, functional shape that allows you to survive and function. So what we're wondering is what tells this one-dimensional line exactly how to take this perfect native shape. And it's a process that we don't fully understand. And we think that it's encoded in the specific pattern that's in the sequence, somehow instructs the protein OK, you're going to have to fold in this way.

I'm studying RNA molecules, which are another type of biological molecule, nucleic acids. So we use an apparatus called optical tweezers to basically pull apart an RNA molecule and then let it refold, and pull it apart and let it refold. And we can use some pretty sophisticated mathematical techniques to extract information about what's called the folding landscape for this molecule.

So basically what a folding landscape is, is sort of you can imagine a two-dimensional surface with little divots in it and kind of going into a funnel shape. And it basically just tells you what the energy of a molecule is as a function of what its shape is. And this is developing important data analysis techniques that can be used as well to understand protein folding.

NSERC has been phenomenal. I was fortunate enough to receive - to hold two NSERC undergraduate research awards, and that's where I found out that I loved research. And now NSERC continuing to fund me into my Master's is so phenomenal because it's enabling me to choose what I want to do. I wasn't limited by funds, I wasn't limited by any concerns, because NSERC was there to support me, so I could pick what I loved.

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