Unlocking molecular mysteries with nano-scale measurements

UAlberta scientist receives prestigious award to explore how evolution shapes protein folding.

Jennifer Pascoe - 05 April 2018

For the first time in nearly four decades, and for the first time ever in the Faculty of Science, a University of Alberta researcher has been awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

Standing at the intersection of physics, molecular biology, and biochemistry, Michael Woodside is driven by the quest to unlock secrets held in the complicated structures of biomolecules. With a laser-sharp focus, Woodside's research addresses questions related to devastating neurodegenerative diseases, such as ALS and Parkinson's, and prion diseases like "mad cow" disease and the associated human form, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

"I study the physics that underlies the behaviour of proteins at the molecular level. Understanding how a protein can change its shape to trigger disease allows us to search for new targets for therapeutic treatments," said Woodside of the implications of his research.

Woodside explores how complex structures self-assemble-or "fold"-in individual molecules of protein, DNA, or RNA, to gain insight into both biological function and dysfunction, or disease. While protein folding is a normal part of the molecular process, misfolding may lead to serious consequences as is the case with the aforementioned diseases.

"I'm both honoured and humbled to receive an award with such an illustrious history," said Woodside of the Guggenheim Fellowship.

Established in 1925, the Guggenheim Foundation has supported thousands of Fellows over the years, including many who have subsequently become Nobel laureates. Woodside will use his award to explore how evolution shapes the folding of individual proteins by reconstructing ancient versions of modern-day proteins to discover how the folding process has changed.

In less than two decades, Woodside has amassed an impressive interdisciplinary academic track record, publishing dozens of papers in the most prestigious peer-reviewed scientific journals covering questions ranging from the fundamental physics of folding to how folding relates to biological function, how proteins misfold to cause disease, and how drugs act to alter folding at the level of single molecules. Woodside has mentored more than 60 students at the undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral levels to address some of society's most pressing questions pertaining to disease.

The common feature cutting across all of Woodside's research is high-precision measurements using bespoke instrumentation customized to the specific applications. His lab has built some of the most sensitive and precise laser tweezers in the world for manipulating single biological molecules and studying their structural dynamics.

A professor in the Department of Physics, Woodside is also the iCORE Chair in Biophysics. Prior to starting at the University of Alberta, Woodside was an independent research at the National Institute for Nanotechnology, a division of the National Research Council Canada located on the University of Alberta campus. Before arriving in Edmonton, Woodside completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford and a PhD at University of California Berkeley following undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto.

Woodside plans to visit several labs in the United States during his fellowship year, working with biochemists, biophysicists, and bioinformaticians at the National Institutes of Health, Berkeley, the University of Oregon, and JILA in Boulder, CO. Following completion of the year-long fellowship, Woodside plans to use his experiences to enhance the research and training programs at the University of Alberta to continue to drive Canada's contribution to the burgeoning field of biophysics.

There are approximately 3000 applicants annually for the coveted mid-career fellowship, each vying for one of roughly only 175 spots. According to the Guggenheim Foundation, "Guggenheim Fellowships are intended for individuals who have already demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts…. to further the development of scholars and artists by assisting them to engage in research in any field of knowledge and creation in any of the arts, under the freest possible conditions and irrespective of race, color, or creed."

The University of Alberta's most recent Guggenheim Fellows were Norman Page (1979) and Juliet McMaster (1976), both professors in English.