The Ring

UVic biochemist wins Steacie national research award

Thu, 2012-03-08 12:28

Boraston and PhD student Melissa Cid in the lab
Boraston and PhD student Melissa Cid in the lab. Photo: NSERC

Finding molecular ways to thwart microbial infections and generate biofuels will be uppermost in the mind of University of Victoria biochemist Dr. Alisdair Boraston for the next two years. Boraston is one of six Canadian scientists to be awarded a prestigious 2012 E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship, announced on Feb. 27 by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

The award goes to outstanding and highly promising university faculty who are earning a strong international reputation for original research. The award provides a research grant of up to $250,000 over two years and frees recipients from teaching and administrative duties during that period.

While microbial pathogens and biofuels may seem unrelated, there’s a common thread that unites them—carbohydrates. These are vital biomolecules found in most living things that store energy, transmit information and provide structure. Well-known examples are sugars, starch and cellulose.

Boraston, who is also the Canada Research Chair in Molecular Interactions, is one of the world’s leading experts on how carbohydrates and proteins interact in such processes as bacterial infection and the generation of bioethanol for fuels.

“Proteins and enzymes bind to carbohydrates and, in many cases, degrade or modify them,” explains Boraston. “By finding out how these processes take place, we can manipulate these processes to discourage [as in bacterial infections] or encourage [as in the production of biofuels] the breakdown of carbohydrates for our benefit.”

As a Steacie fellow, Boraston will continue his ground-breaking work on Streptococcus pneumoniae, a bacterium that is gaining superbug status and ranks as one of the world’s leading causes of death from infectious disease. He’ll also investigate how marine microbes break down seaweed cell walls, with an eye on potential applications to biofuel production.

The research process is a highly creative one that requires freedom of time and freedom to think,” says Boraston, who starts the two-year award on July 1. “I’m really excited about being able to devote all of my time and attention to thinking about science again.”