The major focus of our lab are proteins involved in protecting plants from abiotic stress (cold, drought, and high salinity), especially those known as ‘dehydrins’. These proteins are expressed in plants during times of desiccative stress, and are thought to bind water, protect the cellular membrane from drying and prevent proteins from denaturing. Dehydrins are predicted to be “intrinsically disordered proteins” (IDPs), meaning that they do not have a defined structure as we understand it. IDPs are fascinating proteins since they often fail to follow biochemical dogma (lack of structure, high specificity in the absence of high affinity). We are using several biophysical techniques (NMR, CD, ITC, DSC) to characterize the dynamic structure of dehydrins and understand how they function.
My longstanding interest in antifreeze proteins has continued as an independent investigator as a second focus. These intriguing proteins are found in a number of cold-environment organisms such as fish, insects, plants and bacteria. Though the formation of clathrates around hydrophobic groups is the main phenomenon that drives binding, it is still unclear what features allow these clathrates to form on antifreeze protein surfaces but not on other proteins. Our group is interested in understanding how antifreeze protein binds to its ligand. We are studying the protein both in solution and in ice using NMR, and will test our models by measuring antifreeze activity of mutated and modified proteins.
A third interest of mine involves educational research, revolving mainly around teaching large universality classes. With the increased number of young adults attending university, even third-year classes can have enrollments of 600 students. Our current focus is on defining the large class; a result with which we will exploit to increase student engagement and retention despite its size.