For Carrie Wilmot, it’s all about the molecules.
Wilmot, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biophysics and the newest member of the BioTechnology Institute, is a structural biologist. Her focus is on the physical structure proteins take that allows them to do their job of catalyzing life-giving chemical reactions within cells.
But she’s a structural biologist with a twist: She loves connecting her work with that of scientists in related disciplines, creating a network of knowledge that weaves together structure, function and, ultimately, application. In other words, she’ll tell you what a molecule looks like and how it does its job, then team with chemists, chemical engineers, microbiologists and others to explore not only why, but also what we might do with that knowledge to make the world a better place.
“In my world, we exist in a constantly changing scientific environment in which we interact with MDs who are dealing with Alzheimer disease patients all the way to people growing exotic microbes in fermenters and everything in between,” Wilmot says. “Structural biology often sits in the middle. It can give a lot to those interested in designing industrial catalysts, as well as to people who are interested in diseases. So it really does span everything.”
When Wilmot came to the University of Minnesota a dozen years ago from Leeds University in Great Britain, the proteins that intrigued her most were ones that had implications for biomedical research. Collaborations easily arose with Academic Health Center researchers working to solve disease puzzles. Her work provided valuable information on how proteins work correctly – and what might be done to fix things when they don’t.
But one thing led to another, and before long she discovered that the kinds of molecules she was studying had applications in other realms as well — most notably, in improving microbes’ ability to make molecules we need for non-medical purposes. She began to collaborate with St. Paul-based researchers such as Larry Wackett and Claudia Schmidt-Dannert. Her focus also shifted from elucidating the structure of proteins to actually making them. With her recent induction into the institute and an impending move to CBS facilities in St. Paul, she’s taking the quest in exciting new directions that hold hope for improving our ability to make fuel, degrade environmental pollutants and more.
“My focus is shifting from medical to non-medical biotechnology type of work, partly because of the types of biochemistry I look at,” she says. “It’s the path my research has naturally taken.”
Wilmot is looking forward to making the most of the day-to-day, face-to-face interactions she’ll be able to have with other BTI faculty while at the same time taking advantage of the specialized laboratory equipment and supercomputing capabilities available in her new digs. She’s enthusiastic about moving from a focus on individual proteins to working to improve the efficiency of the entire chain of reactions leading to a useful product. And she’s looking forward to connecting her work with that of others who can move it to practical application.
“For me personally it’s the excitement of new knowledge and seeing and understanding things for the first time,” she says. “I’m not an inventor, so I have to be placed with people who see things in what I do and make that connection.”
In addition to being a core contributor to BTI initiatives, Wilmot is helping to direct the build-out of the synthetic biology cluster, which is in the process of hiring two new researchers who will be involved in developing biochemical pathways to produce antibiotics and other chemicals for commercial application.
“It’s an area that’s really growing,” she says. “We have a lot of expertise here in more traditional protein engineering [and we want] to interface that with looking at the fluxes through pathways, not just at individual enzymes. ... It’s connecting the dots. It’s filling in an exciting new area that’s emerging that will actually bridge between faculty that currently aren’t necessarily building that bridge because it’s too big of a gap.”
Among the directions in which Wilmot is looking to expand into in her new setting: moving beyond having to crystallize molecules to discern their structure. An emerging tool, the free-electron laser, shows promise for making it possible to study proteins in small clusters instead.
“We’re at the forefront of this,” Wilmot says. “The future for structural biology is getting rid of the crystal in crystallography. That’s the technical advance in my field that will completely revolutionize the way we obtain our data in the next decade.”
As she pursues that leading edge in St. Paul, Wilmot is looking forward to the new opportunities she’ll have to interface with colleagues in new ways.
“That keeps it really fresh, interacting with different people,” she says. “Discovering something together and seeing it through different eyes with different approaches and ways of looking at things, so you get even more knowledge. … I view CBS and BTI as the most wonderful institutional environment for producing collaborative and exciting science. Everyone is really excited about everyone else’s science and that can be a rare thing …That’s why I love it here.”
— Mary Hoff