Research exploring the ‘hidden world’ of proteins attracts prestigious BBSRC grant

Research exploring the ‘hidden world’ of proteins attracts prestigious BBSRC grant


A project to harness three ground-breaking technologies developed by Oxford Chemistry researchers – to analyse individual proteins and decipher the complexity of bacterial communication – has been awarded £5.5m by the BBSRC. 

Due to begin this year and continue for five years, the project will involve a multidisciplinary team led by Justin Benesch, a professor in the Department of Chemistry who is based in Oxford University’s Kavli Institute for Nanoscience Discovery. He will work with colleagues from the Departments of Chemistry (Dirk Aarts, Hagan Bayley, Madhavi Krishnan, Philipp Kukura and Yujia Qing), Computer Science (Yarin Gal) and Zoology (Kevin Foster). They will collaborate with researchers at the University of Liverpool’s Centre for Proteome Research (Claire Eyers) and the Wellcome Sanger Institute (Sarah Teichmann). 

The team aims to develop and apply a novel approach for identifying proteins and their common modifications. Seemingly subtle protein modifications, such as phosphorylation, can drastically alter a protein’s function. However, these modifications are difficult to detect with existing technology – meaning they remain largely hidden. The new approach will help scientists understand how proteins function in health and disease.

The team’s approach leverages three technologies developed by members of the team: nanopore, electrometry and mass photometry. These technologies are already used individually to extract different types of valuable information about biomolecules, including their mass and electric charge. 

The team will apply their approach to study the role of phosphorylation in individual bacteria – where the most common forms of phosphorylation tend to be more unstable and difficult to detect with existing methods. This work will enable improved understanding of microbial life, helping better combat infection and antimicrobial resistance.

Professor Benesch said: “Proteins carry out the processes of life, yet harbour so much complexity that current technologies cannot detect.  Our approach should reveal much of this, and we really look forward to exploring what we will uncover.”

The project was awarded a Strategic Longer and Larger (sLoLa) grant by the BBSRC. The sLoLa programme is designed to support frontier research that will address significant fundamental bioscience questions and improve our understanding of the fundamental ‘rules of life’. This project was one of just four chosen for funding. 

Further details available via BBSRC.