Customer Spotlight: Thomas Curry, Ph.D. Candidate, Urbanowicz Lab, University of Georgia
PhD candidate Thomas Curry has been researching how understanding the chemistry of plant cell walls can lead to the development of environmentally friendly petroleum-based fuels and plastic alternatives for over four years. He and other lab members use the Azure 200 Imager in the Urbanowicz Lab. The Lab is headed by Assistant Professor Breeana Urbanowicz and part of the Complex Carbohydrate Research Center, in the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at the University of Georgia (UGA).
Plastic pollution is an enormous problem facing the world. The UN Environmental Programme simply states: our planet is choking on plastic. With a substantial amount of plastic used only once before being discarded, 400 million tons of non-biodegradable plastic waste are produced each year. Such catastrophic pollution is leading scientists like Curry to ask pressing questions.
Curry explains one objective of the research community studying plant cell walls is to build a more sustainable future by addressing plastic waste and global warming by engineering alternatives to plastics and biofuels. “A major goal in our field is to replace non-renewable resources with those sourced from plants,” Curry says.
How plant cells could be the answer to pollution
Plant cells are surrounded by carbohydrate-based cell walls. The Urbanowicz Lab believes of these cell wall components are as an underutilized renewable resource and chooses to focus on achieving a complete understanding of the biochemistry of cell wall biosynthesis. There is a large amount of diversity among cell walls across the plant kingdom, meaning Curry and his lab mates must study a wide variety of plants. He works with proteins from trees to moss and everything in between.
Work in the lab involves the classic plant model system, Arabidopsis thaliana, as well as poplar, switchgrass, duckweed, algae, and carbohydrates from a variety of food crops. Eventually, the knowledge gained may allowed for the engineering of other plants to produce biofuels and other biomaterials.
Curry’s main work is focused on reconstituting enzymatic pathways responsible for the synthesis of cell wall polysaccharides and biochemicals in vitro. Ultimately, his work may allow large-scale synthesis of cell wall components. These chemicals are currently too rare and expensive to produce by currently available technology.
A review of Curry’s recent published work on xylan structure and biosynthesis can be found here.
Imaging coomassie-stained protein gels and SYBR Safe-stained DNA gels using the Azure 200
Curry’s work involves recombinant expression of plant enzymes, an experimental workflow that requires running numerous DNA and protein gels to track expression. Because these proteins are often glycosylated, they frequently cannot be expressed successfully in bacterial expression systems. Instead, they are expressed in human cell culture.
In addition to appreciating the color imaging capacity the Azure 200 has brought to their documentation, the system has another customization level that Curry has grown to love. He jokes that the instrument has become a favorite in the lab because of its “ability to change the background to funny pictures of each other.” Shown below is Curry next to the lab’s imager, with an image of his PI as the background. The Azure 200 is also able to image, edit, and store data.
A special combination of basic research and practical applications keeps Curry interested in his line of research work. “The process of optimizing and troubleshooting the reactions is like a puzzle,” he says. “It’s a great feeling when it all comes together.”
Read more about the Urbanowicz Lab and their research into cell wall biosynthetic pathways on the laboratory website.
Gel Imaging Made Simple
The Azure 200 Imager used by Curry at UGA is an upgradeable, simple, touchscreen-based gel documentation imaging system. It is designed for UV, color imaging, blue-excited DNA dyes, and Coomassie gel imaging. Field upgrades are available for chemiluminescent, RGB fluorescent and NIR fluorescent applications.
Read more customer spotlights:
- “Visual Feature | Beat Plastic Pollution.” UNEP, https://www.unep.org/interactives/beat-plastic-pollution/. Accessed 7 October 2023.