Prof Awarded Prestigious Research Grant

April 18, 2008 - News Release

A University of Guelph molecular and cellular biology professor has been awarded a prestigious Human Frontier Science research grant.

Prof. Rod Merrill is one of the first to receive this international award as the lead investigator of a research team. The grant provides $1.2 million in funding over three years for novel and innovative research.

"Grants from Human Frontier Science are highly competitive and prestigious," said Prof. Chris Whitfield, chair of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology. "The award is a reflection of the quality of Dr. Merrill’s work and acknowledgment of the excellent research environment here at the University of Guelph."

The Human Frontier Science program supports interdisciplinary research focused on the complex mechanisms of living organisms. Topics can range from molecular and cellular approaches to systems and cognitive neuroscience.

The program's research grants are awarded to teams of scientists from different countries who wish to combine their expertise to approach questions that could not be answered by individual laboratories. The research team is expected to develop new lines of research through the collaboration.

There is an emphasis placed on collaborations that bring together scientists from different disciplines, including biology, physics, mathematics, chemistry, computer science and engineering to focus on problems in the life sciences.

Merrill will be the lead investigator of a research team that includes Carmay Lim of Academia Sinica, Taiwan; Norman Oppenheimer of the University of California, San Francisco; and Emil Pai of the University of Toronto.

The team will examine an enzyme-catalyzed chemical reaction as it happens in protein crystals using time-resolved x-ray and laser techniques. The cutting-edge aspect of the research will be conducted in a specialized laboratory at the Advanced Photon Source synchrotron in Chicago known as BioCARS.

"It's a great opportunity to do research work that is bold and daring," said Merrill. "It's an international grant so it also gives you an opportunity to go global with your research."

As lead investigator, Merrill will be co-ordinating the research efforts happening at the four universities.

Merrill's expertise is focused on protein toxins that function as enzymes to modify biological targets. He uses a wide array of physical, chemical and biological techniques to study these toxins.

"Toxins are produced by bacteria as tools to help invade human tissue," he said. "I am interested in studying how they work so that we can inactivate these tools and minimize the activity of disease-causing bacteria."

He has previously studied Pseudomonas aeruginosa exotoxin A, one member of a family of powerful enzymes produced by pathogenic bacteria that cause diseases such as cholera, diphtheria and pneumonia. Through this research he revealed how the toxins attack and kill human cells, which could help in the design and application of therapeutics for treatment and prevention.

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