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By Ken Eastwood Kashmi Ranasinghe 3 February 2021 6 min read

In the body, some proteins are considered especially heinous.

In the brain, there are proteins that control our appetite, our temperature and even how we reproduce. Meanwhile other proteins can inflict damage on our organs through adverse reactions, like gluten's role in Coeliac disease.

Professor Michelle Colgrave leads our Future Protein team. And when it comes to proteins, she sorts out the goodies from the baddies.

We went undercover to see how she uses her investigation skills through proteomics to help us in our daily lives.

Michelle Colgrave: Special Proteins Unit

Picture Michelle working in our laboratories as a sort of heroic forensic detective. But instead of fingerprinting or examining stab wounds of human subjects, she uses a technique called mass spectrometry to investigate proteins. Mass spectrometry identifies and counts these proteins out from within a sample. As a result, she’s able to identify their roles in various situations – be it beneficial or sinister. The study of proteins using mass spectrometry is known as proteomics.

“It’s essentially capturing a snapshot of any cell tissue or organism at a point in time,” explained Michelle.

The technique is also highly transferable. “I do everything from measuring peptides involved in abalone spawning through to defining grain quality or safety. I apply the tools we have to these very different challenges."

“We’re trying to understand the proteins in any given system and how they interact. As a result, we can infer the biology of that system through knowing what those proteins are,” she said.

Where did it all begin?

It all started for Michelle with an inspiring science teacher, Mr Bruce. He taught her at her high school in Batemans Bay in New South Wales and was a "really great teacher" for her.

“From there, I went to an agricultural high school in Sydney for my last two years of school. So that’s where the merge of agriculture and science came into play," she said.

Michelle studied science at University of Wollongong, where she was mentored and inspired by Professor Margaret Sheil, Australia’s first female professor of chemistry. She ended up completing a PhD on bioanalytical mass spectrometry under Professor Sheil’s supervision.

Since then, Michelle has flourished with this combination of agriculture and chemistry and has earned multiple awards for her work in proteomics. This includes the ICM Agrifood Award from the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering in 2020. She was appointed chief investigator in the new Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Innovations in Peptide and Protein Science. There, 26 organisations work together with a co-investment of $89 million to spend over the next seven years.

Using proteomics to support agriculture and food

Many other researchers use proteomics to understand human health. But Michelle focuses on agriculture and food.

“We’ve applied it to agriculture in the sense of ‘can we make a plant that produces something that’s going to be beneficial?’ An example is we’ve made a canola variety that produces omega 3 oils through genetic modification (GM)," Michelle said.

These oils have many benefits to human health, including heart and brain development. But they've traditionally been harvested from plankton-eating fish. If we’re going to harvest all of that fish oil from the ocean, then that’s going to decimate our oceans. So we’re using canola instead.”

“As a result, we’re providing the same nutrition but in a more sustainable way. For every 10,000kg of fish that need to be harvested, we can grow a hectare of this canola.

"My role was to use proteomics to show that a GM organism can be safe for consumption and also safe for the environment," she said.

But what about looking at proteins for food intolerances?

Michelle also researches gluten. In particular, she looks at what is safe to eat for coeliacs and gluten intolerant people.

“It could be the gluten itself, or it could be the other proteins that exist in the gluten-containing grains that are interfering with your metabolism,” Michelle said.

Her research helped us develop an ultra-low gluten barley variety called Kebari. “Farmers with a grain-like Kebari can grow that for a premium price because it’s addressing this niche market."

“In terms of consumers, it’s more about ensuring that the food they’re eating is safe. They can have some confidence when they see a ‘gluten-free’ label on a packet that they’re not actually going to be sick. And that can happen at the moment,” she said.

Michelle finds it easy to explain why some plant proteins make some people sick.

“Plants can’t run away. So what do they do? They make all these defence molecules to make insects feel a bit sick when they eat them. We then go and make products out of them. So it’s not surprising that sometimes we get sick or experience these gastrointestinal complaints just like the insects!”

Lately, Michelle has been working on understanding proteins to help with changing dietary patterns.

“For example, we’re seeing people who are starting to reduce their red meat intake and maybe increase their plant protein intake. So we’re doing a lot of work around that and understanding what plant proteins they could use and understanding their nutritional value. An example of that is lupin."

This also includes looking at insect protein sources such as black soldier flies and crickets.

“The part that I play in this is understanding with these insects whether they will also have anti-nutritional proteins that will cause food allergies," she said.

Using protein sleuthing skills for animals

Her work in proteomics can also be applied to animals.

“When we’re talking about reproduction, there are neuropeptides in the brain that release under certain conditions which trigger that response. And this applies whether it be in cattle in northern Australia or whether we’re looking at abalone in our Southern regions. If we understand what those peptides are, we can potentially intervene to ensure a more sustainable and reliable production system,” Michelle said.

“For example, on abalone farms, spawning has always been a bit of an issue because the abalone isn't getting the same cues they would if they were in the environment. These cues include the moon and the tides, algae in the water, or other factors.”

The future of proteomics and GM

At times, GM technologies tend to garner bad publicity. But the way Michelle sees it, they're as safe as conventional breeding programs. If not safer.

“I can cross two different varieties of wheat to produce a new variety. Kind of like when your parents came together to conceive you. Even though you have a mix of proteins and genes inside you from both parents, it's considered natural and not GM. As a result, there's no need for a safety assessment," Michelle said.

“On the other hand, the requirements to prove safety are extensive for GM products from both environmental and health perspectives. For example, we see if they're toxic for insects or if they threaten the environment. We also assess the health implications if you consume a GM product."

"We don't do these tests if we naturally breed the product. As a result, you understand the GM product much better. So you could argue that they’re even safer.”

"I don’t think GM is bad. What we have to understand is when we make a change, what else are we changing? And can we understand the effect of those changes?"

For the moment, it looks safe to leave these sorts of investigations in the hands of our protein detective.

This article was first published on The Brilliant. Read the original here. 

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