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Scientists to go back in time to uncover an ancient process that makes cells resistant to toxic chemicals

Posted on 21 September 2022

A project led by Professor Gavin Thomas involving five UK universities is to receive £4m funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

The group will try to unravel the mysterious function of a protein that appears to be able to restore function to damaged cells.


The scientists, led by Professor Thomas and Dr Benjamin Willson in the Department of Biology, have won funding of just over £4 million from the BBSRC’s strategic longer and larger (sLoLa) grant scheme to undertake a five-year project to understand how IM30 proteins, which are found in almost all bacteria and plants, are able to sense and reseal damaged membranes, allowing cells to survive in the presence of a range of stresses.

These proteins are known to appear rapidly as ‘first responders’ when the cell membrane becomes damaged and leaky but, says Professor Thomas: “How they patch up the membrane is unknown, but is likely an ancient sticking plaster that helped early cells become more robust."

The York team includes Professor Luke Mackinder’s group in the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP), who will study these proteins in photosynthetic microbes where they have important functions in chloroplasts where photosynthesis takes place.


The team also includes Dr Jamie Blaza, from the York Structural Biology Laboratory, Department of Chemistry, who has pioneered the development and application of new technologies that allow real-time measurement of the health status of cells.

Dr Willson, a research co-investigator on the project, said: “Jamie’s bioenergetics chamber allows us to effectively measure the energy levels of a bacterial cell and then see how that changes as we add or remove stresses during an experiment. The ability to measure these vital statistics in living cells is a really unique and powerful tool.”

These tools will be used in conjunction with complementary imaging methods developed by Dr Henrik Strahl and Professor Susanne Gebhard at the Universities of Newcastle and Bath, respectively. The team is rounded out by the world-leading proteomics expertise of Professor Kathryn Lilley’s group at the University of Cambridge, and by Dr Boyan Bonev and research co-investigator Dr Vivien Yeh at the University of Nottingham, who have developed methods to directly probe the interactions of IM30 proteins with both model and bacterial membranes.


The work builds on a previous project with industry, which found that this response was activated in diverse bacteria used in biotechnology to manufacture chemicals, and further understanding its function has direct applications in improving bacterial fermentations. The response is also involved in bacterial resistance to some antibiotics and could potentially be targeted to enhance the efficacy of antibiotic treatments.