Ph.D candidate, Biochemistry
The possibilities for antifreeze proteins
by Meredith Dault
April 21, 2011
Biochemistry student Chris Garnham vividly remembers the moment he solved a problem that had been plaguing him for years. It was a Saturday afternoon, and Garnham, who studies antifreeze proteins, was working in the lab. He was trying to understand the crystal structure of a particular protein that he’d been puzzling over since beginning his PhD work. When it finally came, his ‘eureka!’ moment was tremendously satisfying.
“All of a sudden, what I was looking at finally made sense,” he recalls with a satisfied smile. “I remember thinking that I was the first person in the history of mankind who had ever looked at this. Nobody had ever seen what I was looking at!” For Garnham, it justified the countless hours he had spent in the lab. “You put years of work into something, and then to finally see the end result of it, and to produce something that nobody has ever seen before...that’s what keeps you excited to keep doing research. That’s what keeps you coming back.”
For Garnham, who graduates this year, the discovery was the perfect way to mark the end of his time at Queen’s. He first arrived as an undergraduate a decade ago, uncertain about what the future had in store. “I didn’t have this huge plan,” he laughs, “but I remember taking a tour and really liking the campus and thinking that Kingston was beautiful.”
After completing his degree in biochemistry Garnham took a year off, but then returned to Queen’s to start his graduate work. He began his doctoral degree in 2005, just as a post-doctoral fellow was finishing up a three-year stint. “He had gone to Antarctica searching for bacteria that produced antifreeze proteins,” Garnham explains. “And he came to the lab with a couple different bacterial strains, and then started the project by culturing the bacteria -- and then I was able to take up the project.”
Garnham’s current work looks at the antifreeze protein from one particular Antarctic bacterium. “Many organisms that live in freezing environments will produce antifreeze proteins to help them survive,” he says, explaining that they are present in cold blooded creatures like fish and insects, and in plants and arctic bacteria, all of which can’t control their own temperatures (unlike warm-blooded creatures). “What those proteins do is physically stick to the surface of an ice crystal and prevent it from further growth,” he explains.
First discovered in Antarctic fish over 40 years ago, antifreeze proteins are now being considered for use in a number of unexpected ways. Garnham says that one of the most promising is for organ transplants -- organs could be stored longer after being pumped through with an antifreeze protein solution. He says that antifreeze proteins are already being used in ice cream. “Mixing them in with ice cream lowers the fat content but keeps it creamy,” Garnham says with a laugh, “but they don’t call it antifreeze then -- they call it an ‘ice structuring protein’.” He adds that antifreeze proteins could also be used in the future in frost susceptible crops, or to help prevent ice build-up on airplane wings.
Since making his discovery, Garnham and his supervisor, Dr. Peter Davies, have had a paper published (in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), putting forward their ideas about the mechanism that antifreeze proteins use to stick to the surface of ice. “It’s something that has been debated for essentially as long as people have studied antifreeze proteins,” says Garnham, pleased to have been able to add his voice to the conversation.
With that work under his belt, Garnham is now preparing for the next leg of his journey: a post-doctoral position with the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland -- one of the largest government funded labs in the world. Though he is excited about his new position, which begins in August, Garnham says leaving Kingston will be bittersweet. “I consider Kingston home now, so it will be a little sad to go.
And although he admits that the idea of taking on new research is daunting too, Garnham says he is ready for it. “I’ve been studying antifreeze proteins for five years now, and I know the field. I know my research inside and out. And so going to start a post-doc...well, you’re almost starting from scratch.” Then he pauses, considering the unknown that awaits him. “It will be a new challenge,” he says with a smile, “but you have to keep doing that. You have to keep challenging yourself.”