For Catherine Drennan, teaching and research are complementary passions

Catherine Drennan claims nothing inside her job thrills her a lot more than the entire process of discovery. But Drennan, a teacher of biology and biochemistry, is not discussing her landmark study on protein structures which could play a major role in reducing the world’s waste carbons. 

“Really the essential interesting thing in my situation is viewing my students ask great concerns, problem-solve, after which make a move spectacular by what they’ve learned,” she states. 

For Drennan, analysis and teaching tend to be complementary interests, both flowing from the deep sense of “moral duty.” Everybody, she claims, “should do something, predicated on their particular expertise, to produce some sort of contribution.” 

Drennan’s own study portfolio attests to this feeling of mission. Since her arrival at MIT 20 years ago, she has centered on characterizing and harnessing metal-containing enzymes that catalyze complex chemical responses, including those who digest carbon substances. 

She got her come from the field being a graduate student at the University of Michigan, in which she became captivated by vitamin B12. This huge vitamin includes cobalt and is essential for amino acid metabolic rate, the appropriate development of this spinal-cord, and avoidance of certain forms of anemia. Bound to proteins in food, B12 is revealed during digestion. 

“Back after that, individuals were recommending exactly how B12-dependent enzymatic reactions worked, and I wondered how they might be appropriate when they didn’t know very well what B12-dependent enzymes appeared as if,” she recalls. “I realized we needed seriously to work out how B12 is bound to protein to essentially understand what was taking place.” 

Drennan seized on X-ray crystallography in an effort to visualize molecular frameworks. By using this method, involving jumping X-ray beams off a crystallized test of the necessary protein of interest, she identified just how vitamin B12 is bound to a necessary protein molecule. 

“No one had previously succeeded like this to obtain a B12-bound necessary protein construction, which turned out to be gorgeous, through a protein fold surrounding a novel configuration of the cofactor,” states Drennan. 

Carbon-loving microbes show the way 

These studies of B12 led straight to Drennan’s one-carbon work. “Metallocofactors such as B12 are crucial not only clinically, in environmental processes,” she claims. “Many microbes that survive carbon monoxide, carbon-dioxide, or methane — consuming carbon waste or transforming carbon — use metal-containing enzymes inside their metabolic paths, therefore appeared like an all natural expansion to research them.” 

Several of Drennan’s first work with this area, online dating through the early 2000s, unveiled a cluster of iron, nickel, and sulfur atoms in the center associated with the chemical carbon monoxide dehydrogenase (CODH). This alleged C-cluster acts hungry microbes, permitting them to “eat” carbon monoxide and carbon-dioxide. 

Current experiments by Drennan analyzing the dwelling of this C-cluster-containing enzyme CODH revealed that in response to oxygen, it may change designs, with sulfur, iron, and nickel atoms cartwheeling into various opportunities. Researchers selecting brand-new ways to reduce carbon dioxide took note of the breakthrough. CODH, proposed Drennan, might prove a successful device for changing waste carbon dioxide into a less eco destructive ingredient, including acetate, which can also be employed for manufacturing functions. 

Drennan has additionally been investigating the biochemical paths by which microbes break up hydrocarbon byproducts of crude oil production, such as for instance toluene, an ecological pollutant. 

“It’s very difficult chemistry, but we’d always come up with a household of enzymes to your workplace on a myriad of hydrocarbons, which will give us countless possibility cleaning up a variety of oil spills,” she says. 

The risk of weather change features increasingly galvanized Drennan’s study, propelling her toward brand-new goals. A 2017 research she co-authored in Science detailed a previously as yet not known chemical pathway in sea microbes that leads into creation of methane, a formidable greenhouse fuel: “I’m stressed the sea will make much more methane whilst the world warms,” she says. 

Drennan hopes the woman work may shortly help to lower the planet’s greenhouse fuel burden. Commercial organizations have begun utilising the chemical pathways that she researches, in one single instance having a proprietary microbe to capture carbon dioxide produced during metallic production — prior to it being circulated to the environment — and convert it into ethanol. 

“Reengineering microbes in order for enzymes just take not just a little, however a countless carbon dioxide out regarding the environment — it is an area I’m really excited about,” states Drennan. 

Developing a significant life into the sciences 

At MIT, she has discovered an ever more hot welcome on her behalf efforts to handle the weather challenge.  

“There’s already been a shift before ten years or more, with more students dedicated to research which allows us to fuel the earth without destroying it,” she claims. 

In Drennan’s lab, a postdoc, Mary Andorfer, as well as a increasing junior, Phoebe Li, are currently working to prevent an enzyme present in an oil-consuming microbe whoever regrettable residence in refinery pipelines results in erosion and spills. “They are really excited about this research from the ecological viewpoint and even produced movie about their microorganism,” states Drennan. 

Drennan delights within form of enthusiasm for research. In twelfth grade, she thought biochemistry was dry and dull, without any relevance to real-world issues. It wasn’t until university that she “saw biochemistry as cool.” 

The deeper she delved in to the properties and operations of biological organisms, the greater possibilities she found. X-ray crystallography provided a fantastic system for research. “Oh, what enjoyable to share with the storyline of a three-dimensional construction — the reason why it really is interesting, exactly what it can based on its kind,” says Drennan. 

Sun and rain that excite Drennan about research in architectural biology — recording stunning pictures, discerning contacts among biological methods, and informing stories — come into play in her own teaching. In 2006, she obtained a $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) for her educational projects that use inventive artistic tools to interact undergraduates in biochemistry and biology. She actually is both an HHMI detective plus an HHMI teacher, recognition of the woman parallel accomplishments in analysis and teaching, as well as a 2015 MacVicar Faculty Fellow for her sustained share to the knowledge of undergraduates at MIT. 

Drennan tries to achieve MIT students early. She taught introductory chemistry classes from 1999 to 2014, plus fall 2018 taught the woman very first basic biology class. 

“we notice a significant undergraduates majoring in computer system technology, and I also wish to convince all of them associated with worth of these disciplines,” she claims. “we let them know they will need chemistry and biology basics to resolve important issues someday.” 

Drennan gladly migrates among many procedures, discovering as she goes. It’s a class she hopes her students will absorb. “Needs them to visualize the world of technology and show what they may do,” she says. “Research takes you in numerous instructions, so we want to deliver how we instruct more in line with our research.” 

She’s got large expectations on her behalf pupils. “They’ll go out in the world as great teachers and scientists,” Drennan claims. “nonetheless it’s vital they be good people, taking good care of other individuals, asking what they may do to make the world a significantly better destination.” 

This article appears in the Spring 2019 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine regarding the MIT Energy Initiative.