Chemistry PhD awarded Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship

Peter Liuni, chemistry graduate student in the Faculty of Science, has been awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship in Science and Technology for his overall academic excellence and research potential.

Chemistry PhD student Peter Liuni headshot

Peter Liuni

Liuni’s work in protein dynamics is shedding light on the synergistic relationship between how proteins, and more specifically enzymes, move and function.

“In a nutshell, enzymes are large biopolymer chains of amino acids that play a fundamental role as the molecular machines of the cell. They are responsible for catalyzing highly specific chemical reactions with incredible speed and efficiency,” says Liuni. “Like machines, enzymes must ‘move’ (dynamics) in order to perform particular tasks, such as binding and releasing of molecules.”

One of the major challenges for researchers has been obtaining experimental evidence to show whether or not dynamics plays a direct role in influencing catalysis. This is because dynamic motions in an enzymes structure are usually extremely fast, ranging from femtoseconds to seconds.

“My research project focuses on two proteins: Chymotrypsin which is a digestive enzyme found in the pancrease, and alcohol dehydrogenase which is responsible for breaking down alcohol, says Liuni. “Using a number of biophysical tools and techniques developed in the Wilson lab, we were able to uncover evidence for a new never-before-seen model for catalysis-linked dynamics by studying chymotrypsin.”

“Once people started to be able to take ‘snapshots’ of protein molecules, it was pretty quickly realized that their function depended a lot on their shape. But there’s a problem: Some proteins from organisms that live at near-boiling temperatures fold-up just right at room temperature, but fail to function. And some other proteins don’t have any fixed structure at all, but still function in a highly specific way. We are only just starting to realize that how proteins move is just as important (and in some cases more important) than how they are shaped,” says Liuni’s supervisor chemistry Professor Derek Wilson. “Our lab has tools that allow us to probe protein motion at an unprecedented level of detail, with applications to cancer and neurodegenerative disease.”

The Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship in Science and Technology supports graduate students (both master’s and doctoral) engaged in science and technology research. The program is jointly funded by the Province of Ontario and York.