Although he doesn’t have many hobbies, biologist Mark Bayfield might consider taking up origami, based on the particular talents of his favourite research subject: the protein antigen known as La, one of the cell’s key regulators.
The La antigen is noted for its abundance and ubiquity in human cells, where it has several roles in RNA metabolism. It is thought to be a significant factor in helping cellular RNAs fold into their correct conformation, much like practitioners of the Japanese art of paper-folding copy objects in nature. Importantly, researchers suspect that several human viruses subvert this function of La in favour of their own RNA during infection.
Right: Mark Bayfield
As one of the newest members of the Faculty of Science & Engineering’s Department of Biology, Bayfield arrived one year ago to bolster York’s growing team of molecular biologists – researchers who are carrying the study of the human body beyond the sequencing of the genome into the even more complex world of cellular processes, in search of fundamental knowledge that will help find the causes and cures of disease.
“A lot of viruses really, really like La to help their genes get expressed,” Bayfield explains. “They hijack this protein from its normal job.”
“Viruses have evolved to mimic the normal substrates, the normal targets of La, so that it thinks the viral RNA is what it should be binding and doing things for. What we’re doing in this lab, in part, is to figure out what La is doing in these contexts.”
The implications of his work are of great interest to people in the medical community looking for ways to turn off the rogue processes in human cells that are responsible for the spread of diseases such as cancer, hepatitis B and C, poliovirus and rabies. In fact, La was discovered in the 1970s during research into the autoimmune disease Lupus. But, as in most fundamental research, it’s early days to be considering applications for what Bayfield is learning about La.
Left: Illustration of La
“We’re still at the stage where we’re trying to get under the hood and find out what it does,” he says. But he expects scientists at the major pharmaceutical companies will find applications for what he is learning and be able to use the data in the search for new ways of fighting disease.
Bayfield’s work is cutting edge. The 2001 Nobel Prize in medicine was awarded, in part, to Professor Paul Nurse of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London, England, for his work on cellular processes using yeast as an experimental model. Bayfield also uses yeast cells to study La because of their rapid generation time and ease of use in genetics.
“Human proteins and the equivalent yeast proteins can sometimes do the same thing in a cell, and this is the case for La. You can literally take a human protein and put it into a yeast cell and it can often do the exact same job just as well.”
Bayfield began his career at Montreal’s McGill University where he did an undergrad thesis that opened his eyes to the joys and challenges of fundamental research. “In the textbook…you’re only reading about the stuff that works – that’s not how research gets done. They’re not telling you about all the things they did that didn’t work. But for me, that just makes it more rewarding when it does work.”
After graduate studies at Rhode Island’s Brown University studying bacteria and ribosomes, Bayfield did his post-doctoral research at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, where he first started working with La.
Although he tried most branches of science at university and considered doing medicine, he found he enjoyed working out the puzzles of fundamental research and settled on molecular biology as his field. “It’s one of the subjects where I feel we’re really in the first few pages of a big book,” he explains. “We’re getting the tools now to get to a level of complexity that even 10 years ago – and certainly 30 or 40 years ago – we didn’t even imagine existed.”
For more information on Mark Bayfield’s research visit his Web page.
By David Fuller, YFile contributing writer