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From the origin of life to technologies that will improve the lives of Canadians, a dozen reasons to celebrate McMaster’s research

12 Projects awarded more than $2.4M from the CFI's John Evans Leadership Fund
From the origin of life to technologies that will improve the lives of Canadians, a dozen reasons to celebrate McMaster’s research

Origins of Life Lab researchers: Biophysicist Maikel Rheinstädter (left), astrophysicist Ralph Pudritz (top right) and biochemist Yingfu Li (bottom right)

Danelle D’Alvise, Research Communications
July 29, 2015

In the next few years, McMaster researchers just might have the answer to an age old question that has fascinated scientists for centuries: what is the origin of life?  

Biophysicist Maikel Rheinstädter, theoretical astrophysicist Ralph Pudritz and biochemist Yingfu Li  share the same passion for unravelling the mystery of how the earliest form of cellular life emerged more than 3.5 billion years ago. The trio has combined their complimentary expertise to establish a facility that will be unlike any other in the world – the Origins of Life Laboratory.

“You need three things to create a cell,” explains Rheinstädter,  “a membrane, enzymes to facilitate certain reactions, and molecules such as DNA and RNA to store information.”

Put these things together inside two unique simulation chambers that are about the size of a bar fridge, replicate the volcanic conditions on early Earth, adjust and cycle the temperature, humidity level, radiation and other factors that mimic daily and seasonal cycles, and in a matter of days the chambers will have simulated hundreds of years of primordial interactions.   

Rheinstädter--the principal investigator on the project -- describes the research trio as a "dream team", each viewing this research challenge through significantly different lenses that range from his own specialty in membrane biophysics, to Pudritz's world-renowned expertise in planet formation, to  Li's innovative work in RNA and DNA as Canada Research Chair in Chemical Biology of Nucleic Acids.

The project has garnered $400,000 from the Canada Foundation for Innovation's (CFI) John Evans Leadership Fund (JELF) , which is designed to help universities attract and retain the very best researchers by ensuring they have access to cutting edge equipment and facilities. The Origins of Life Laboratory was one of twelve projects at McMaster to receive infrastructure funding from the CFI.

“This was a remarkably successful competition for us as we received more awards per capita than any other Canadian university and earned the second highest total number of awards,” says Allison Sekuler, acting vice-president of research.  “It’s a great testament to the excellence of McMaster’s researchers, both established and emerging.” 

At today’s announcement in Moncton, the Honourable Ed Holder, Minister of State (Science and Technology) said, “Today’s investment in state-of-the-art infrastructure at universities, hospitals and other research institutions provides a foundation for the cutting-edge research that benefits and changes the lives of Canadians.”

More than $2.4M was awarded to McMaster through the John R. Evans Leadership Fund (JELF) . Dr. Evans was the founding dean of McMaster’s Faculty of Health Sciences (1965-1972) and the CFI’s first Board Chair.

Below are the lead researchers awarded infrastructure funding from the CFI’s JELF program:

  • Jonathan Bramson has been awarded $300,000 for Infrastructure for developing novel cell therapies and manufacturing methods to develop innovative white blood cell therapies and manufacturing techniques. Bramson, the Canada Research Chair in Translational Cancer Immunology, is developing new treatments for cancer that employ patients’ white blood cells to fight their tumours. 
  • Biologist Ian Dworkin will use his $148,606 JELF award Infrastructure for an integrative genomics and phenomics lab to identify mechanisms generating phenotypic variation to establish a facility that will enable a transformative approach to how we examine the functional effects of subtle changes in gene function.
  • Qiyin Fang,  Canada Research Chair in Biophotonics, is leading an interdisciplinary team of researchers for the project Intelligent home Sensor Networks for the Elderly. The $149,036 award will help fund a simulated single house based research platform specifically designed for the development and performance evaluation of sensors capable of continuous monitoring of physical activities and physiological parameters.
  • Materials science engineer Kathryn Grandfield’s project Advanced Characterization of Biomaterials will develop new methods to identify the underlying mechanisms involved in the bonding of implants materials to bone with very specialized high resolution techniques. Her $61,889 JELF award will provide a better understanding of the interactions between natural and man-made biomaterials at the nanoscale, focused on improving orthopaedic and dental implant technologies.
  • Lesley MacNeil, biochemistry and biomedical sciences, will use C. elegans as a model to study environment-genotype interactions. MacNeil’s $144,487 JELF project will use C.elegans (transparent nematodes or roundworms) to study two environmental factors – diet and microbiota – and how these factors interact with disease mutations.
  • Andrew McArthur will use his $34,245 award to establish A new bioinformatics laboratory to integrate functional genomics, biocuration, and analytics in biomedical research. McArthur, an assistant professor in biochemistry and biomedical sciences, wants to fully capitalize on the future of biomedical Big Data by integrating clinical and genomic data.
  • Anthropologist Shanti Morell-Hart $80,000 JELF-awarded project Understanding Climate Shifts, Foodways, and Societal Resilience through Ancient Plant Residues will use innovative techniques to investigate transformations in past environments, human causes of these shifts, and societal responses to ecological change.  Her archaeological research will map long term changes in human-environmental relations through patterns of plant residues at ancient Maya sites.
  • Sukhvinder Obhi will use his $226,111 JELF award for Exploring the Neurocognitive Bases of Social Behaviour. The associate professor of psychology will examine whether a particular system in the human brain known as the human mirror system (HMS) causes social mimicry, and whether a particular factor that is known to affect social relationships – power – also has effects on the HMS and social mimicry.
  • Maikel Rheinstädter The Origins of Life Laboratory $400000
  • Mechanical engineering professor Stephen Veldhuis, director of the McMaster Manufacturing Research Institute (MMRI) has garnered a$398,380 JELF award to improve the performance of tooling using an integrated coating strategy involving material and process parameter optimization.  His Hybrid PVD Coating System research program will boost Canada’s competitiveness in the manufacturing sector by addressing production rates, quality, and will also reduce the need for low value added labour.
  • Research in Gerry Wright’s lab is focussed on understanding antibiotic resistance and using this information to derive strategies to overcome it.  Wright – the Canada Research Chair in Molecular Studies of Antibiotics – has been awarded $300,000 for a Platform for Antibiotic Discovery will support his continued efforts to identify compounds that can be used to address the antibiotic crisis.
  • Ryan Wylie,assistant professor, chemistry and chemical biology, will be Developing biomaterials to manipulate and study cell-matrix interactions. His $197,972 JELF award will enable the development of synthetic mimics of the extracellular matrix (ECM) – the microenvironment that surrounds cells and provides structural and chemical cues. The understanding of cell-matrix interactions will lead to the development of targeted cancer therapies as well as regenerative therapies after cardiac arrest and stroke.

"The CFI’s John R. Evans Leaders Fund is about remarkable people, and the latest recipients of this fund are no exception,” says Gilles Patry, President and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation. “By equipping world-class researchers with state-of-the-art tools, Canada remains a global competitor in areas that matter to people in communities around the country.”