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Published 6 April 2018

Victoria researchers engineer groundbreaking new proteins

Researchers from Victoria University of Wellington have made significant progress in the science of protein engineering, achieving a breakthrough which has implications for tackling global problems from diseases to climate change.

Victoria University of Wellington's Ferrier Research Institute researchers Dr Effie Fan and Professor Emily Parker, along with other researchers from the Maurice Wilkins Centre have created a new approach to protein engineering inspired by natural evolution. Using their method, they have successfully combined different parts of natural proteins to form new proteins.

Combining different parts of natural proteins to create new, fully functional proteins is something that has never been accomplished before, and is a huge step forward for the field of protein engineering as it will make the process much faster and effective. The new technology has vast implications in a variety of fields ranging from crop growth to vaccine development.

“Everything in nature, from humans to bacteria, is made of proteins, and through evolution proteins can change in a certain way to solve certain problems – like making people immune to a disease,” says Dr Fan.

“But evolution is a slow process, and there are some problems – like cancer, viral epidemics, and climate change – that we don’t have time for nature to solve on its own. The goal of our field of science is to manipulate proteins in the lab to solve these problems soon.”

Some of the specific implications that Dr Fan and Professor Parker had in mind while developing their research were towards the development of new antibiotics. The team used proteins that are part of the bacteria that cause tuberculosis and gastric cancer in their research. With more knowledge about how these particular proteins can help the bacteria cause disease, the knowledge can be applied to help the creation of new antibiotics to fight these diseases, many of which are resistant to modern antibiotics. 

The proteins from these bacteria are found in many different living organisms, so the techniques developed can potentially be used to manipulate proteins in other ways to help mitigate other global problems.

The research was recently published in the US National Academy of Science’s official scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS.